India is the world superpower that has yet to gain consciousness amongst policy makers, politicians and the public. It is a mix of democracy, demagogy, high tech information highway graduates and crushing rural poverty.
It is the world’s largest democracy by population and one of the least well known beyond the simple images created by media, tourism, news reporting and historical fiction.
It is more than its cricket team, Hindu deities and the Raj – it is a set of modern urban megacities that have benefited from the globalised trade system, the world’s most important non-Hollywood film industry and potentially the largest population on earth that has English as its core commercial, political, legal and education culture.
Prime Minister Modi is no Macron, Trudeau or Sanchez. He appears to be all things to all stakeholders; a “retail politics” masterclass success story, narrative maker, protector of Hindu nationalism and champion of India as more than a middle power player in key debates (climate, defence, security or trade).
A lack of coherent opposition strength (there is no individual lurking in the shadows to topple him) and no natural succession line of claimants for the top job make for a good environment for him. No pressure from outside but plenty of pressure from his own ego, political drive and desire to have an impact.
The pandemic (so far) has illustrated both the weakness and the strength of India’s role within the global business system that has thrived under low inflation, high tech innovation and free trade. India was and still remains the call centre of the world, an important manufacturer of key products (including for big pharma) and a substantial player in agribusiness, minerals and raw material markets like timber. But the ability to deliver products on time and within price levels is just part of the story. India has a thriving diaspora that packs a punch in politics, business and culture across the anglosphere.
India was part of the successful vaccination program that created and manufactured so much of the medical products to get the world back onto its feet. India has also balanced the pressures of a destabilized Pakistan, destroyed Afghanistan, beligilent China and rogue Russia. Having PLA Navy vessels and bases in the Indian Ocean is one reason India has been a solid member of the Quad. Having Pakistan turn on its political class and military leadership in recent months has given India further reason to seek stability and security. The mantra of UK Prime Minister Theresa May “strong and stable” in the 2017 election is something that Indians seem to value.
The invasion of Ukraine has created distrust with the West and concern over the Russians as Indian nationals have been caught up in the conflict as innocent bystanders, education and technology students and expat business operators.
Why is India at the crossroads? The past has seen it seek major power friendship with both the USA and Russia (earlier USSR) whilst being hesitant about the actions of the PRC Chinese leadership. It is more about maoist insurgents and borders and less about economic domination.
The current crisis/war/outrage in Ukraine (best seen as the Russo-Ukrainian War of 2014-) is the litmus test for PM Modi and his government.
What is the direction best suited for India as it raises incomes, education, literacy and military might?
Is it a BRICS styled “one of many” position whereby it is equally dismissive of Western narratives as it is of naked Russian aggression? Or should it be a pivot towards a multilateral D20 concept that the world’s top twenty democracies by GDP, population, military resources and financial reach remodel the global system into a binary free versus non-free set of nations?
I am an optimist about Indians as a people, neutral about PM Modi and negative about clever policies of close ties with Russia and accommodation with China. India will not be the superpower it can be if it hitches its wagon to the tired, racially hostile and economically suspect horses that Russia and its dark state represents.
The desire to be respected, financially secure, environmentally responsible and geopolitically safe can only come from a D20 tribe with India as one of the top players.
On issues of nuclear power, agribusiness innovation, solar energy provision, protection of the Indian Ocean from incursions from Russian or Chinese navies India is the first and foremost geopolitical player.
Can it harness a large population and unshackle the limits set by gender, social class, caste or religion that hold it back? Would it not be wonderful if one of the largest populations of Muslims globally reside in a secure, stable and prosperity seeking society?
Would it not be encouraging that the pipeline of highly motivated and skilled graduates with first class skills sets (language, STEM and work ethic) play a role in the recovery and reconstruction of Ukraine following a defeat of the Russian invaders?
Would it not be empowering if the P5 at the United Nations see Russia lose its place to India as a symbol of world condemnation?
The USA, UK, Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore and South Korea would make a wonderful “magnificent seven” to be tied to India by bonds of common belief in the rule of law, commitment to enterprise and wealth creation, respect for national sovereignty and the desire of populaces for self determination.
Sending BoJo, Scott Morrision or the young Trudeau to visit for trade talks is just not sufficient … it will require people to people connection; military to military ties; intelligence agency to intelligence agency collaboration and cultural institution to cultural institution contact.
In the early 1940s the largest volunteer army of the Western Allies emerged from British Undivided India to fight fascism, imperialist aggression and despots. Maybe the 2020s will see the largest democracy in the world mobilised to fight the threat from rogue decision makers in Moscow, Beijing and elsewhere.
It is India’s opportunity to be at the top table as a force for good.
Noel Hadjimichael is a London based public policy consultant in the security, defence and civil society space with relevant experience working in politics, the civil service, industry and the charitable sectors.