from Asia Unbound

India at Seventy: An Emerging World Power With Unfinished Business at Home

A girl gets her face painted in the colours of India's national flag, as she takes part in India's Independence Day celebrations inside a college in Chennai, India, August 15, 2017. P. Ravikumar/Reuters

August 15, 2017

A girl gets her face painted in the colours of India's national flag, as she takes part in India's Independence Day celebrations inside a college in Chennai, India, August 15, 2017. P. Ravikumar/Reuters
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As India celebrates its seventieth year of independence from the British on August 15, the press has been filled with retrospectives asking the usual decennial question: Has India succeeded or has it failed?

The Financial Times’ data-driven package illustrated in charts the progress India has made since 1947, but also its shortfalls. At independence, for example, the Indian economy was just 15 percent the size of the U.S. economy; today it’s about half as large if measured in terms of purchasing power parity. Yet, despite these gains, Indian gross domestic product (GDP) in per capita terms remains only around 10 percent that of the United States.

IndiaSpend.com compared India’s progress from 1960 to 2016 across several indicators with Brazil, China, Malaysia, South Korea, and Pakistan. India has made great strides in GDP growth, life expectancy, infant mortality, and literacy over the decades— yet still lags far behind Brazil, China, Malaysia, and South Korea. The silver lining from an Indian perspective: it has performed better than Pakistan.

Difficult to Assess

Two pieces in the international media captured, for me, the difficulty with assessing India, and the role that perspective plays.

Writing for CNN, New Delhi Bureau Chief Ravi Agrawal looked at India’s progress across several indicators: economic growth, life expectancy, toilets in schools, and electricity in schools. But he also noted less positive trends for the future: weak job creation, a skewed sex ratio, climate-related heat waves, plus rising religious polarization and its impact on India’s management of diversity.

In sharp contrast, writer Pankaj Mishra’s take, in the New York Times, found that India at seventy represented the passing of an illusion. He wrote that India today—with the decline of the Congress party’s secularism and the rise of Hindu nationalism—no longer stood for emancipation and a moral world order as it did in the twentieth century.

A Force in Foreign Policy

As India continues to tackle its pressing economic, human development, and social equity goals, my own view on this question is that India, like China, is emerging as a world power even as it still has a large unfinished domestic agenda. The world is not accustomed to thinking of countries that have not reached higher income levels as capable on the world stage. That error in thinking fails to account for the growing effect large but still-developing countries like China and India exert on the world.

Yes, India still has much to do at home. But at the same time, over the past decade India has become a much larger factor in foreign and international economic policy around the world.

Economic activity has shifted to Asia, and India is a large and growing part of that story—in part due to the success of economic growth in lifting more than 160 million people out of poverty between 2004 and 2011. India’s economy, now the world’s third largest in purchasing power parity terms, has given it greater global heft, and is powering the expansion and modernization of the country’s military capabilities.

Perhaps as important, a more vocal India is emerging on the world stage, an India that sees itself as a “leading power” and seeks to fulfill that ambition. This new stance, still a work in progress, suggests more proactive participation from India on international matters in the years to come.

Domestic Challenges

To acknowledge the reality of India’s growing external power does not suggest that the country has overcome all of its well-known challenges. Nor that it will avoid new problems, including questions of social inclusion—of caste, religion, gender—that make India such a complex nation.

In many ways, the domestic problems Indian leaders need to overcome will make India an even more complex country to negotiate and partner with than smaller nations that have already reached higher income levels. Just look at the complicated Bali Trade Facilitation Agreement negotiations for proof.

India first took the negotiations down to the wire, then overturned a global consensus which it had helped broker, before eventually coming around after its concerns were addressed. Though by all accounts the Indian government wanted the trade facilitation aspects of the agreement—measures to coordinate and ease customs procedures, for example—New Delhi’s late objection centered on its fears that its domestic food security program might exceed international subsidy levels, which could present a problem under World Trade Organization rules. Here, India was willing to press the world in order to preserve its domestic program.

So, India at seventy: still much to do at home to fulfill the aspirations of India’s constitution and the promise of justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity that it resolves to secure for all its citizens.

But for India’s foreign policy? With a more powerful and more active India charting a course for itself as a global leader, in my view, the glass is now more than half full. And likely to get fuller over time.

An earlier version of this post appeared on Forbes.com.

My book about India’s rise on the world stage, Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World, will be out in January. Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa. Or like me on Facebook or Instagram.

Further Reading: Some Online Resources on “India @ 70” and on Partition

  • Hindustan Times series on "India @ 70"
  • Mint series on "India @ 70"
  • On Twitter, don’t miss @IndiaHistoryPic for images of the freedom movement and independence.
  • The 1947 Partition Archive, a trove of volunteer-sourced accounts of partition from its survivors.
  • UK National Archives: The Road to Partition, 1939-47
  • Foreign Relations of the United States compiled U.S. diplomatic archives, now online. See the relevant files from 1947 to read U.S. diplomatic correspondence on the “political situation in India” in the run up to independence.
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