When I first set foot in New Delhi for a semester abroad program in September 1990, India seemed very far away, not just in distance but in mind. Crinkly aerograms took two weeks to reach home, and long-distance “trunk calls” needed advance booking. India made the news in America mainly when catastrophe struck—whether the toxic gas leak in Bhopal, Hindu-Muslim riots, or the insurgency in Kashmir. More often than not, American media depicted India as a land of saints and beggars, a place defined by an admixture of faith, deprivation, and no small measure of chaos. Few American companies had stakes in India, as the reforms that ended its economic isolation were yet to begin. Although New Delhi and Washington shared the bedrock values of democracy and pluralism, that never was enough to overcome chronic estrangement from each other. Formally nonaligned, in practice socialist India tilted heavily toward the undemocratic Soviet Union.
None of those concerns was on my mind when I began my semester abroad, eager to experience one of the world’s great civilizations. But nothing prepared me for the crises roiling the country. That September began India’s autumn of discontent. The coalition government headed by then Prime Minister V. P. Singh was sinking in a bitter political fight over affirmative action. The prime minister had announced his plan to implement “reservations,” or quotas, in government and in public universities for people from historically low-caste backgrounds as a means of righting centuries of discrimination. The social earthquake about to follow would take his government down.
Barely a few weeks after my arrival in Delhi, a student set himself on fire to protest the reservations policy. Others copied him in the days to follow. All told, some seventy students self-immolated against affirmative action. Cities, including the capital, shut down for days to prevent violence from spiraling out of control. My enduring memory of that month will always be images of bodies ablaze—I had never seen this form of protest before, and could not understand it. The student protests created an opening for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to withdraw its support for the coalition government and launch a movement to build a temple at an historic site it said had been taken from Hindus by Muslims more than four hundred years earlier. By November, the government had collapsed. Another short-lived coalition followed.
I had expected that semester abroad to consist of a lot of classroom as well as experiential learning. I had not adequately appreciated the extent to which history would unfold before me. Here was an India wrestling publicly, and violently, with questions of caste, faith, and history, and how to create more equal opportunities for its citizens. That September was a turning point for India’s trajectory on caste and social discrimination, and the reservations policy implemented then remains in place to this day. Meanwhile, the BJP, which began its drive to power with the movement to build a temple to the Hindu god Ram, now leads the national government.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my own long passage to India, both personal and professional, had already begun. Against my parents’ advice—they worried that my pursuit of India studies would never lead to a job—I returned to spend the following summer in India just as the country found itself amid new turmoil. Former prime minister and Congress party president Rajiv Gandhi had just been assassinated on the campaign trail by a member of the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan terrorist group. After an unexpected leader, P. V. Narasimha Rao, emerged from internal party politicking, Congress formed the next coalition government. In June, Rao was sworn in as prime minister just in time for India’s economic crisis. India’s currency reserves were dwindling, and in May 1991 the government resorted to airlifting crates of gold bars to Switzerland as collateral for a loan. But the collateral didn’t last very long, and by June India was staring at default. Driven in part by International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout requirements, India—under the new Rao government, with finance minister Dr. Manmohan Singh at his side—began wide-ranging economic reforms. The Rao government moved to open the economy by devaluing the rupee, ending much of the licensing regime that stifled business, and finally allowing the beginnings of foreign investment in some sectors.
India’s 1991 opening to the world would be an historic turning point. The beginning of liberalization would, over the next fifteen years, propel the country’s rapid growth and its rise as an international economic force. Notably, these 1991 reforms took place in an atmosphere of crisis, and were done under duress. As important, they remain incomplete.
But the crises of the early 1990s now seem a lifetime ago. The India of more recent years is a vastly different place, and it interacts with the world in very different ways. If the India of the nineties was a place that attracted the spiritually hungry, more adventurous tourists, and committed academics, today it is just as likely to draw investors seeking deals and Fortune 500 CEOs looking to grow their company’s bottom line. The pre-liberalization marketplace of deprivation—an academic adviser suggested back in 1990 that I should bring plastic placemats as gifts for people—has become a consumer land of plenty. The nondescript youth hostel I stayed in during the fall of 1990 now houses India’s preeminent software industry association, the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), whose members have seen their exports explode from $100 million in 1990 to around $100 billion by 2015. Lured by India’s large and growing middle class, major U.S. companies all have an India strategy and some of them have tens of thousands of employees based there. Lately I’ve been hearing more and more about the new adventurous Americans—some of Indian descent, some not—interested in heading to India to found start-ups. It’s another world.
This growing sense of ambition and possibility, an optimism about India’s global importance, contrasts sharply with the past. Bitter political fights still unfold, but no one worries these days about chronic government instability as they did in the 1990s. Governments last their full term. And the social change that has accompanied increased urbanization and a communications revolution has shaped the country’s dreams for itself and its children. India’s two most recent prime ministers have come from backgrounds not of privilege, but of sheer grit: former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—once Rao’s finance minister—studied by candlelight as a child before scholarships to Cambridge and Oxford launched his career as an economist, then he became a trusted political appointee, and eventually made it to the top. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi has traversed a path from hawking tea on rail platforms to state-level leadership and then all the way to the prime minister’s office. The message is that drive can take individuals to wherever they want to go, infusing Indians with new visions for what they can do. That same ambition is pushing the country to envision a larger role for itself on the world stage.
India is now on track to become the world’s third-largest economy at market exchange rates over the next fifteen years. Using another measure—purchasing power parity (PPP), which accounts for price differences across countries—India became the world’s third-largest economy in 2011, surpassing Japan. As annual economic growth soared from 4 to more than 8 percent in the mid-2000s, crossing 10 percent by 2010, more than one hundred sixty million people moved out of abject poverty in the period from 2004-5 to 2011-2, according to World Bank figures. Economic progress has moved India from a minor player on the international stage to a major one. Its politics are covered by the mainstream media in the United States—although not as much as they should be—and major Indian news makes the U.S. headlines. The country’s increased visibility has made Indian culture more familiar to Americans, yoga is ubiquitous, and even Bollywood needs no further introduction.
Economic growth has changed individual lives in India, and the rise of new opportunities—as well as resulting social changes—has been well chronicled. India’s role as an emerging power and increasingly consequential actor on the world stage has happened in a less obvious and less discussed fashion. In a world of low growth in the developed markets, India’s large population and comparatively high economic growth rates have made it a crucial place to be for global companies, likely for decades to come. Within global institutions, as a vocal World Trade Organization (WTO) member, an emerging-market leader in the Group of Twenty (G20), and a critical player in global climate talks, India now plays a greater and more visible leadership role than it did, say, during the days in which the handful of Group of Seven (G7) countries could expect to set the global economic agenda.
But New Delhi continues to chafe at its exclusion from a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, and still feels that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund should better reflect the changing clout and interests of emerging markets. Even while pressing for reform of these twentieth-century global organizations to account for India’s rising global voice, New Delhi has asserted at the same time its commitment to new multilateral groupings like the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) cohort and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
It’s time to get used to the fact that while India still struggles at home with poverty and a plethora of social issues—and likely will continue to for the foreseeable future—it is less and less reticent about its global ambitions. In other words, while many of the internal cleavages that have preoccupied India for decades remain unresolved—in that sense, a status quo—at the same time, the country has embarked upon a larger role for itself internationally. It is India’s more confident quest for global prominence that forms the subject of this book.
Former foreign secretary and former Indian ambassador to China and the United States Nirupama Rao described this as a sensibility, a consciousness within India that “India has not got its due on the world stage” despite its size, its democracy, and its accomplishments. Senior politician Baijayant “Jay” Panda, a member of the Biju Janata Dal party and a longtime chair of the India-U.S. Forum of Parliamentarians, added another layer to that description: “I see India as a re-emerging great power.” In his view, India’s previous foreign policy of diffidence is being gradually supplanted, as a result of India’s opening to the world, by a larger sense of landscape and responsibility.
That sense of destiny, as the following pages explore, appears focused first and foremost on attaining recognition for India as one among the world’s powers. The pursuit of recognition—status—has a corollary desire: larger roles for India in global institutions such as the UN Security Council. While India is not a revisionist power seeking to overturn the global liberal order, New Delhi does seek for the institutions of global governance to accommodate it with greater voice and the heightened status many feel has been unfairly denied. In the arena of trade and global commerce, India’s stock has risen quickly, and it would be hard to find a major corporation without deep stakes in India. But the geopolitical world has been slower to adjust.
What New Delhi seeks to do on the world stage as a global power remains a work in progress. India has largely refrained, apart from crises in its own neighborhood, from taking major positions on unfolding peace and security matters that preoccupy the transatlantic diplomatic agenda. But a new focus on attaining primacy in the Indian Ocean, and a declared willingness to serve as a “net provider of regional security,” suggests an expanding sense of responsibility for itself in the security sphere, such as providing humanitarian assistance beyond its own citizens in distress, and an emerging new program of security assistance to Indian Ocean countries and Vietnam. India is beginning to position itself in different ways, too, shedding the oppositional stance so characteristic of the Non-Aligned Movement and forging strong partnerships with many Western liberal democracies, the United States included. In recent months, India stood firm on its commitments made under the Paris Agreement, stepping up as a global climate leader just as the United States took a step back. At the same time, its ties with Russia remain deep, and its self-identification as a prominent voice of the global South remains strong.
Despite India’s emergence as a top-ten world economy, its self-perception as a developing country remains ineradicable, and its stances in international trade matters reflect this view. As Fareed Zakaria has observed, the world has new powerhouse economies now—China, and now India—which have grown large in the aggregate even while remaining comparatively poor. China’s economic heft has given it the throw-weight to push what it wants either through inducements or assertiveness in a growing number of places around the world. India, by contrast, still lacks the deep pockets that have made Beijing a consequential sovereign investor, and it cannot necessarily determine global outcomes on its own. (Although these days, it’s harder and harder for any country to single-handedly shape global decisions.) In many contexts, India shies away from or remains ambivalent about pushing its own views, often preferring to remain quiet or offer carefully crafted positions designed not to offend. In this sense, India treads carefully—cautiously—where others might employ a more vocal approach.
That said, while India remains some distance behind China, the days of being seen solely as a careening overcrowded land of poverty are long gone. India’s transition includes a self-belief that India’s ascent to power on the world stage is deserved, and unfolding now. In a 2015 speech delivered in Kuala Lumpur, Prime Minister Modi conveyed an assuredness about India’s moment: “Now, it is India’s turn. And we know that our time has come.” His conviction about both time and India’s place echoed those of his predecessor Manmohan Singh eight years earlier: “I am confident that our time has come. India is all set to regain its due place in the comity of nations.”
Despite the hurdles India still has left to clear, India has already become a consequential global actor. As it continues to shed its past diffidence it will realize its ambitions as a global power, likely in its own more cautious way, in the decades to come in a way that was unimaginable twenty-five years back. This book is about that process as Indian citizens make their country’s place in the world.
Copyright © 2018 by Alyssa Ayres. Courtesy of Oxford University Press.