Wheel of life. Can India measure up to China?
2015-05-13 | Text: Dr. Michael Liebig | Photo ©: Jeremy Richards, Joerg Hackemann, skouatroulio, AAliaksandr Mazurkevich, David Rodriguez, Jeremy Richards, kaetana (123rf), Malcolm Chapman, ostill, Banana Republic images (shutterstock), sibro.ru, Keystone / Getty Images | 5371

India is generally perceived as a big emerging country with a large population – but laden with enormous socio-economic and political problems. Thus, India is standing in the shadow of rising China which seems to fare much better. The following article argues that India’s power potential tends to get underestimated because its endogenous resources for development are insufficiently known outside India.

At the 2014 Munich Security Conference, the Indian National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon, puzzled the audience by stating that India was not an ‘emerging power’, but a ‘re-emerging power’. Indeed, during the past 2500 years it is only in the period from about 1750 to the end of the 20th century that India was not a great power. In the 16th century, India was one of the few true world powers, along with China, the Spanish-German Empire of Charles V, the Ottoman Empire and, maybe, England and France. Still in the mid-18th century, India generated – along with China – the biggest economic output in the world economy and it had held that position for the previous 22 centuries.

What world public opinion seems to have forgotten, the Indian themselves were always keenly aware of. Take Mahatma Gandhi: “The English have taught us that we were not one nation before, and that it will require centuries before we will become one nation. This is without foundation. We were one nation before they came to India […] I believe that the civilisation India has evolved is not be beaten anywhere in the world. Nothing can equal the seeds sown by our ancestors. Rome went, Greece shared the same fate, the might of the Pharaohs was broken, Japan has become westernized, of China nothing can be said, but India is still, somehow or other, sound at its foundations.”

Now, in the early 21st century, the global distribution of political and economic power is balancing back to what one may call ‘historical normality’. India – along with China – is slowly but surely retaking the position it had prior to British colonial rule. Nevertheless, India appears outclassed by China where economic growth, accumulation of financial power and upgrading of strategic weight has indeed been spectacular since the 1970s. In contrast, the international perception of India is still shaped by poverty, social inequality, corruption and political clientilism. Indeed, these problems are truly profound, but they are also misleading. In terms of GDP (PPP standard), India is the 4th largest economy in the world and its well-educated middle class is larger than the US population and will soon equal the EU population. India has one of the largest armed forces in the world and is a nuclear weapon state. So, Menon’s statement in Munich articulates a sober and factual assessment of India’s position in the contemporary world.

Chinese Homogenity vs. Indian Elasticity

But can India really measure up to China, if not today, then in 20 or 30 years from now?

I would think, yes, India can. Why?

China has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system. This system has produced an ‘economic miracle’ employing a dirigiste, state-capitalist economic policy. With the world’s largest currency reserves and being one of largest holders of American state debt, China can keep the United States at bay. In economic and financial terms, the Chinese have established a system of ‘mutual assured destruction’ with respect to the USA, akin to what existed in nuclear-strategic terms between the USA and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Moreover, China has become the biggest trading partner with

the rising Asian economies, including South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia – and India. China being the world’s biggest export economy is an enormous strength, but it means dependency on foreign export markets as well. This trade dependency, however, I think, will probably not represent a really serious problem for the Chinese economy because the weight of China’s domestic market is steadily increasing.

It is less so in the economy as such, but in the political sphere where China is facing its real challenge. Because the political system is so rigid and centralized, it lacks the necessary elasticity for dealing with internal frictions – in social, demographic, ecological, ‘ideological’ and ethnic terms. Whether such frictions might at some point conflate into a situation of rupture, remains to be seen. But if that were to happen, one wonders whether the Chinese political system possesses the necessary flexibility and adaptability for successful ‘crisis management’ that can do without violence and repression.

And precisely here, in the political sphere, lies the big difference between China and India. India has a democratic system, albeit no carbon copy of ‘Western democracy’. India has a federal state structure and there is a ‘civil society’. At first sight, these characteristics of Indian politics seem to be a disadvantage vis a vis China. In political, but also in economic terms, India appears inefficient, slow, wasteful. Political conflicts and social frictions seem to remain endemic and mostly unresolved. However, the Indians themselves (as well as the outside world) do know about these problems – they cannot be swept under the carpet by political class. Banal as that may be, acknowledging problems, is the indispensable first step to address them. India does possess a ‘discursive space’ for addressing political, socio-economic and other problems: political parties, the media, trade unions and NGOs of all kinds. These seemingly cumbersome features of Indian politics give it its unique elasticity and resilience. The Indian political system can absorb shocks and and ‘manage’ multiple (internal) crises. The political system and civil society structures can ‘work off’ problems, albeit slowly, thus preventing their escalation and conflation into a situation of rupture.

The one and only authoritarian episode in independent India’s history was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decreeing emergency rule in 1975. The emergency lasted till 1977 when she was forced to hold early elections and was promptly voted out of office. Typical for Indian politics, in the national elections three years later, Indira Gandhi was re-elected as Prime Minister.

India is diverse to an extent which is difficult to understand for anyone to comes from Europe, the USA, Russia, Japan or, in particular, China. In all these countries, homogeneity is the paradigm – in ethnic, lingual, religious and cultural terms. On any Indian currency note, you will find 15 state-recognized languages – belonging to four totally different language families. India is also multi-ethnic, multi-religious and, of course, socially divided. Yet, in this diversity of 1.2 billion people there is cohesiveness. It is a cohesiveness based not on (enforced) homogeneity, but on the paradigm of inclusive plurality. It is on this basis that India gained its independence from British colonial rule and has since remained intact as a nation state in spite of severe and almost continuous internal problems.

The Modernity of Tradition

In order to understand the elasticity of Indian politics and the resilience of Indian polity, it is necessary to draw on two analytical concepts. First, the concept of ‘modernity of tradition’ in India was developed in the late 1960 by the Indologists Lloyd and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph. The concept means that in Indian politics there is no strict divide between endogenous tradition, reaching back to the Vedic period more than 3000 years ago, and modern thinking and institutional practice. Instead, there is a symbiosis or ‘hybridity’ between tradition and modernity. This concept was further developed by Subrata Mitra, an Indian political scientist at Heidelberg University’s South Asia Institute. Mitra’s concept of ‘re-use of the past’ in Indian politics refers to the ‘Indian tradition to use tradition’ in order to meet contemporary challenges. Tradition in India is not a nostalgic or ‘reactionary’ turning backwards, but an active catalyst for addressing and resolving current problems. The paradoxical consequence is ‘political change through tradition’ – or ‘conservative dynamism’ – in Indian politics. Mitra emphasizes that the ‘re-use of the past’ has already been the political paradigm in pre-modern India – i.e. the Maurya, Gupta or Mughal empires – as well as in modern India.

The Indian independence movement under Mahatma Gandhi is a prime example of the ‘re-use’. Before Gandhi, the independence movement was a political project of the urban, intellectual and ‘westernized’ elites who mainly ‘imported’ the European ideas of nationalism, democracy, socialism and human rights. On this basis, however, the movement did not gain traction among the Indian masses – mostly living in rural areas. That changed dramatically when Gandhi took over. He ‘connected’ the political struggle for India’s independence with the recourse to Indian tradition. He invoked India’s ancient cultural heritage – notably the ancient epic Mahabharata – and made it the foundation and frame for the contemporary political struggle. The ideas of nationalism and self-determination were given a new substance in terms of Indian tradition – and that caught up with Indian masses transforming the independence movement into the potent political force that overwhelmed British colonial domination.


The Mahabharata is not just a literary narration – like Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad – but contains explicit philosophical, ethical and political argumentations. The Mahabharata contains the didactic poem Bhagavad Gita whose main message is: Do what needs to be done with full commitment, but at the same time, you must stand above it. That is in a way the essence of the Indian ‘weltanschauung’. People outside India may think that the Mahabharata is ‘high culture’, reserved for the educated elites. But Indian cultural reality is different. Over the past two millennia, the Mahabharata has been immensely popular among the illiterate masses, because it was orally transmitted within the family, through story tellers and traveling theatres. One must keep in mind, that till the early 20th century, oral transmission of cultural assets was predominant in India – even among the Brahmin elites. And in contemporary India, the popularity of the Mahabharata as well as the other great ancient epic – the Ramayana – remains unbroken, even though the mode of reception has changed through books, TV series, comics or Internet.

Like Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, the second founding father of modern India, conflated Indian tradition with political modernity. To this day, Nehru’s The Discovery of India, written in British captivity in 1944, is probably the best introduction into the Indian ‘weltanschauung’. Like Gandhi, Nehru did not uncritically glorify India’s past, but ‘used’ it for addressing contemporary political challenges. Thus, western modernity was not rejected wholesale, but transformed through tradition. And both Gandhi and Nehru could only succeed with this ‘hybridization’ because the past was latently or manifestly ‘present’ among the Indian masses.

The ‘re-use’ of the past as the guiding principle of Indian politics has continued unabated in independent India – no matter which party has governed since 1947. The Congress party as well as the ‘Hindu-nationallist’ BJP, which currently rules under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, adhere to the same ‘hybrid’ policy stance of fusing tradition with modernity.

We have mentioned the epic Mahabharata as an endogenous politico-cultural resource. India has many such resources – and they are all ‘present’ in the lifeworld of today’s India. These politico-cultural resources are not uniform, but quite diverse. In terms of political philosophy, some are ‘realist’, others are ‘idealist’, and most are a mixture of both. Buddha, one of greatest sons of India, would belong to the ‘idealist’ lineage. The great political theorist Kautilya, who was also key for establishing the Maurya Empire in 320 BC, was certainly a political ‘realist’. The great Maurya Emperor Ashoka was a follower of Buddha and pursued ‘idealist’ policies. The great Mughal Emperor Akbar was both a ‘idealist’ and a ‘realist’. Tagore and Aurobindo Ghose were ‘idealists’. Was Gandhi an ‘idealist’, yes, he was. But, he also pursued quite ‘realist’ policies.

Take the question of non-violence (ahimsa) in the political sphere. Gandhi is known in the world for his unwavering commitment to non-violence in the struggle against British colonialism. Was this so for purely ethical considerations and nothing else? No, Gandhi’s ahimsa stance was – also – based on ‘hard realism’: He made a sober assessment of the correlation of forces. The British military capacities were vastly superior and would have crushed an armed insurrection. Instead, British morale had to be worn down by peaceful resistance and non-cooperation – also a form of ‘power politics’. And it worked. India gained its independence in 1947 – two years ahead of Mao’s victory in China. Moreover, compare the price paid in human lives and suffering in the respective liberation struggles. And the same discrepancy we see in the decades thereafter, when we compare India’s development under Nehru and Indira Gandhi with the Mao regime’s ‘Big Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’.

But wasn’t India’s state formation accompanied by massive bloodshed and the forced dislocation of millions of people? Yes, it was. But the main responsibility for that rests with the British colonialists who had systematically pursued a policy of ‘divide et impera’ by promoting the partition of the Indian subcontinent along religious lines. The British-promoted project of Pakistan as an religiously homogeneous Muslim state, is a profound deviation from the Indian tradition of inclusive plurality. The Muslim rulers of the Mughal Empire had accepted the fundamental reality of diversity of India and pursued a policy of religious coexistence and toleration. The religiously homogeneous state of Pakistan, deviating from the Indian tradition out of which it emerged in 1947, broke apart already in 1971 when Bangladesh – the former East Pakistan – seceded. And the remaining (West) Pakistan has been a case in point of political and socio-economic instability ever since. The main reason that Pakistan has not disintegrated, is the massive material and political support it has received from outside powers: first Britain, then the United States, China and Saudi Arabia.

Almost since its inception, the state of Pakistan has been dominated by the military and the secret service. Pakistan started three wars against India – 1965, 1971 and 1999 – and lost them all. Moreover, the Pakistani leadership has steered, trained and equipped irregular forces in Kashmir as well as Islamist terrorists who launched numerous attacks, notably against the Indian Parliament (2001) and in Mumbai (2008). In spite of these security threats – and there have been a number of ‘homemade’ local insurgencies like that of the Sikh separatists or the ‘communist’ Naxelites – the integrity of the Indian state has never been in question. It should be noted here that Islamic fundamentalism and religiously motivated separatism have not been able to penetrate the Indian Muslim community of 180 million who make India the third-largest Muslim country after Indonesia and Pakistan.

What about the Caste System?

But, one may argue, doesn’t India have a fundamental social problem with the caste system? Is not the caste system’s social segregation a major impediment for socio-economic development and a source of instability?

First, in contemporary India, the caste system is rather rapidly eroding and being replaced by a class-type socio-economic stratification. The key factor eroding the caste system is the steady improvement of the average educational level of the Indian population. That education undoes caste, is paradoxically linked to the caste order (varna). There are four castes: Brahmins (‘intellectuals’), Kshatriyas (‘political class’), Vaishyas (‘businessmen’) and Shudras (manual laborers and farmers). Outside the caste order are the Dalits (‘outcasts’) and the Adivasi (isolated tribal communities). Remarkable is that for roughly 3000 years, the Brahmin ‘priests’ and ‘intellectuals’ have been the highest-ranking social group – not the ones with political or economic power. In India, ‘knowledge’ constitutes the highest social status. Moreover, the caste barriers have prevented the conflation of religious, political and economic power into a single ‘ruling caste’. Instead, there has been a ‘division of labor’ and a mutual balancing between these three castes. Therefore, India knows neither a tradition of (political) totalitarianism (aka ‘Asiatic despotism’) nor that of ‘state religion’ as we know from European history. In the caste system, the Shudras have been the negatively-privileged majority of the population; and, even more so, the Dalits and the Adivasi. However, India knows no tradition of slavery and serfdom which was a key feature of the European social order for more than 2000 years. In spite of their social marginalization, Shudras, Dalits or Adivasis were never sub-human ‘things’ without any rights and dignity. To apologize for the caste system would be absurd, but it should be seen in a historical perspective which allows us to better understand its exceptional longevity as a social structure as well as modern India’s difficulties in overcoming it.

India, a Non-Imperial Great Power?

We noted above that India’s politico-cultural resources are quite diverse and pluralist. But the plurality of ‘idealist’ and ‘realist’ resources in Indian political thought has not prevented both traits from being present – latently or manifestly – in the thinking and behavior of the Indian masses and elites. Different from the European and Chinese tradition, Indians think much less in terms of oppositions. Instead of ‘either-or’, it’s ‘as well as’. So Indians tends fuse ‘idealism’ and ‘realism’. Because inclusive plurality is preferred to homogeneity, India is averse to ideological radicalism and extremism. Of course, ugly exceptions confirm the rule. The politically motivated assassinations of Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Raoul Gandhi are cases in point.

Let’s return to the question of India becoming one of the Great Powers in the multipolar world system of 21st century. First, does India have an ‘inner striving’ to become a Great Power? And, if so, what are the endogenous resources feeding such an aspiration?

I think there can be no reasonable doubt that India does have a deep-rooted disposition to be a Great Power. The reason why that might not appear evident, is the absence of an imperialist tradition in India’s political history. India never produced an Alexander the Great, a Julius Caesar or a Napoleon. Since antiquity, the Indian idea of being a Great Power has always had a frame of strategic ‘self-sufficiency’. The idea of conquering foreign lands in the neighborhood – Persia, China or Indochina – has been completely absent in Indian history – even though the human, economic and military resources for an imperial-expansionist policy did exist on multiple occasions during the past 2500 years.

The Indian Great Power aspiration can summarized as follows: 1) achieving and preserving the political unification of the Indian subcontinent, 2) the primacy of internal development of the human, economic and military resources of such pan-Indian state, and 3) the principle of strategic autonomy, i.e. not getting entangled in and dependent on political and military alliances.

India’s strategic ‘self-sufficiency’ is a consequence of its geographical location bounded by the Indian Ocean in the West, East and South and the Hindu Kush and the Himalaya in the North. This subcontinental space is also one ‘geo-cultural’ space, even though this no longer evident in the Northern territories which became Islamic. But we should not forget that present-day Afghanistan was a Hindu and Buddhist country for almost two millennia. No matter how politically conflict-ladden the relations of Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka with the Indian Republic may be, there is still a significant cultural commonality below the surface.

Today’s India accepts the political borders on the subcontinent drawn in 1947 by British colonialism. In 1971, India would have been able to annex Bangladesh, but there was never any consideration of such revisionism. India feels ‘saturated’ within its current borders. But, of course, its territorial integrity is sacrosanct – as one can see in Kashmir and with respect to the border dispute with China in the Himalaya. Thus, one can say that India is a ‘non-imperial Great Power’. This characterization stands, I think, even though the sheer size and weight on India tends to create a perception of India as a ‘hegemon’ in countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. India is a ‘non-imperial Great Power’ not only so because it adheres to the post-1945 norms of international law, but due to a millennia-old political tradition of being neither imperial nor expansionist.

This basic strategic stance is rooted in Indian culture. While Indians are firmly convinced of their cultural and civilizational greatness, sometimes bordering to a sense of cultural superiority and arrogance, there is no ‘missionary impulse’ in terms of culture. There is no politically and or ideologically charged-up desire to ‘export’ Indian culture at the expense of other cultures. This attitude is probably linked to Hindu religiosity which has never pursued proselytizing of non-believers. Conversion is alien to Hinduism – you are born a Hindu and that’s it. Moreover, Hinduism is an exceptionally pluralist which accepts a multitude of diverse beliefs within its wide religious frame. And, Hinduism knows no ‘church’ structure – neither in organizational nor in dogmatic terms.

The Continuity of the Development Imperative

India’s strategic self-sufficiency is also due to fact that – potentially – India always had all it needed in terms of human and natural resources. You didn’t have to go to other lands to grab what you required (or fancied to acquire). Of course, ‘potentiality’ is key here. Transforming this potential into reality, has been the driver of Indian politics since the times of antiquity.

After the ‘dark age’ of colonialism, the pursuit of a development strategy – in economic, scientific-technological and social terms – has been the central feature of Indian politics. Nehru was not only a ‘visionary’ of India’s economic and scientific-technological development, he did lay the foundations of modern India’s industry and its hard and ‘soft’ infrastructure. Nehru knew that economic and scientific-technological development was only possible if the state took a leading role in the economy. The result was the Indian ‘mixed economy’ model. At first sight, the mixed economy appears as a variation of a ‘socialist’ economic model, but it is based on ancient Indian tradition going back to Maurya empire. Kautilya’s Arthashastra is not only a textbook of statecraft, but also a treatise of economics which anticipates much that was developed in Europe some 2000 years later with etatist-dirigiste mercantilism and cameralism in economic theory.

Today, India still has a mixed economy with a strong public sector – in spite of the post-1990 ‘liberal’ reforms. These reforms reigned into political clientilism and bureaucratization in the public sector and significantly scaled down the bizarre over-regulation of private entrepreneurship. The remarkable advance of India’s economic development since the 1990s proofs the stringent necessity of the reforms.

In the terminology of International Relations theory, India has relied on ‘internal balancing’ – the primacy of the development of its own human, economic and technological resources. In that sense, India’s basic economic policy approach has been ‘self-centered’ – focusing rather on the domestic economy of 1.2 billion people than on foreign trade.

India’s ‘NonAlignment 2.0’

In conclusion, let’s have a look at the principle of ‘nonalignment’ or strategic autonomy which has been the basis for India’s foreign and security policy since independence. The concept on nonalignment was developed by Nehru, who from 1947 till his death in 1964 was not only prime minister, but also foreign minister. Nehru realized that India’s long-term interest was to stay out of the two power blocs – respectively led by the United States and the Soviet Union – confronting each other during the Cold War. From a purely tactical point of view, allying with United States against the Soviet Union and (till the mid-1960s) communist China would have yielded significant material advantages for India. The West would have provided economic, technological and also military assistance to an allied India. But India would have lost freedom of action in its foreign policy. In effect, India would have become a (privileged) vassal of the USA. Nehru was not willing to pay a price that high.

It is often said that Nehru’s nonalignment stance was motivated by foreign policy ‘idealism’ and that he was at loath of ‘power politics’. Yes, there was an element of ‘idealism’ in Nehru’s foreign policy, but only in the sense of his understanding of ‘”idealism as the realism of tomorrow”. Nonalignment can be perceived as ‘idealism’ in the sense of the ‘Panchsheel Principles’ of equality, mutual respect for sovereignty, non-interference, nonaggression and peaceful coexistence. But nonalignment is equally so quite ‘realistic’. Nehru skillfully exploited the East-West conflict to the advantage of India. While preserving strategic autonomy, India did get significant economic, technological and military assistance – not from one side, but from both the West and the East.

It needs to be emphasized that the principle of nonalignment/strategic autonomy has remained the pillar of India’s foreign policy up to today – irrespective whether Congress, the BJP or other political forces ruled. An indicator of the staying power of the principle of strategic autonomy in India’s foreign policy, is the policy document NonAlignment 2.0 – A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the 21st Century. It was written in 2012 by a non-partisan group of senior representatives of the Indian strategic community. The document was criticized both for adhering to ‘Nehruvian idealism’ and being ‘establishmentarian’. The critique misses the point that the Indian understanding of ‘hard realism’ encompasses more than ‘pure’ power politics, There is also a normative dimension in Indian ‘realism’. But the characterization ‘establishmentarian’ is correct: the principle of nonalignment is indeed the basic consensus in the Indian strategic community.

India’s nuclear weapon policy is a case in point. India was a de facto nuclear weapon state since its its ‘peaceful’ nuclear test in 1974, which came 10 years after China’s first nuclear test. But India refrained from nuclear weapon testing for both ‘idealistic’ and ‘realist’ reason. India was ‘idealistically’ committed to nuclear disarmament, if the ‘established’ nuclear weapon states – USA, Soviet Union, China, Britain and France – would eliminate their nuclear stockpiles. Therefore, quite ‘realistically’, India refused to sign the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT). When it became evident, after the Cold War had ended, that the existing nuclear weapon states had no intention whatsoever to forgo their nuclear armaments, India decided to assert its strategic autonomy with respect to nuclear weapons. After a waiting period of 24 years. Prime Minister Vajpayee ordered the nuclear weapon tests in 1998. India did that in spite of massive pressure not only from the USA, the EU and Japan and China – in effect, the whole ‘international community’. After the 1998 tests, severe sanctions were imposed on India, but India’s persistence paid off. After few years, led by the United States, the ‘international community’ did accept India as a nuclear weapon state.

But not only that. During the past decade, the USA has actively sought an military alliance with India to ‘counterbalance’ rising China. India would have weighty motives to acquiesce the American diplomatic courtship: it still feels humiliated by military defeat in the 1962 Chinese invasion in the Himalaya, the dispute with China over the Himalaya border remains unresolved, and China is not willing to treat India as an equal partner, for example blocking an Indian seat at the UN Security Council. In spite of all of this, India has not committed itself to a military alliance with United States. Yes, India does cooperate militarily with the USA, particularly in the naval sphere, but India will not forgo her strategic autonomy. Nonalignment is here stay.

Today, when assessing India’s foreign and security policy one should keep in mind what Nehru wrote in 1944 in The Discovery of India:

“India, constituted as she is, cannot play a secondary part in the world. She will either count for a great deal or not count at all. […] The Pacific is likely to take the place of the Atlantic in the future as the nerve centre of the world. Though not directly a Pacific state, India will inevitably exercise an important influence there. India will also develop as a centre of economic and political activity in the Indian Ocean area, in South-East Asia and right to the Middle East. Her position gives her an economic and strategic importance in a part of the world which is going to develop rapidly in the future.“

70 years later, India has indeed become a re-emerging Great Power which is not playing a secondary role in the multipolar world of the 21st century.


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