Hardly a superpower

The last decade of the 20th century saw the first Opposition government at the Centre to last a full term; a dramatic change in US-India relations; the arrival of terrorism on an organised scale from Pakistan; a global recession and India’s ability to survive it with little damage; the beginnings of a new influential world grouping of Brazil, Russia, India and China; the recognition of India as a nuclear and fast growing economic power, and a successful separation of the Congress presidency from the office of the prime minister, ie, politics from governance. Some Indians have projected all this and boast that India is an emerging superpower.

It is not. There are too many weaknesses and new challenges before Indian governments. Some have been tackled, while others were not tackled adequately. Thus the spate of communal killings (the Staines’ murders in Orissa, the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat, and others) seem to have abated.

But organised and externally supported ‘Maoist’ rebellion in a broad swath of India, externally funded terrorist attacks, growing internal mobilisation of some Muslim youth to create communal disharmony and shake the Indian state, have not.
The administrative apparatus remains largely unaccountable, ineffective, inefficient, corrupt, and concerned more with turf wars than in dealing with the growing challenges. It has made all policy implementation uncertain. The second decade is starting with growing hostility to migrants speaking other languages, (in Mumbai, and states attracting migrant agricultural labour like Punjab, Haryana) with government support as in Maharashtra.

States reorganisation is likely to create much disruption until it is implemented and new smaller states created based on development needs and not just language. Fear of electoral consequences, Balkanisation, and unwillingness of legislators to delegate power, have prevented consideration of smaller states, and local autonomy at district and local body levels.

Terrorist attacks have made home and internal security ministries vital, not to be left to a self-styled ‘Iron Men’ or a loyal clothes horse. But there is poor coordination and flexibility in dealing with the tribals in ‘Maoist’ controlled areas, or Jammu and Kashmir.
Minority development, especially Muslims, is another national security challenge and has yet to be vigorously tackled.

The economy has many challenges. Economic reforms began with the opening in the 1980s under Rajiv Gandhi to information technology and telecommunications, the relaxing of rigid industrial licensing and on industrial ‘monopolies’. Now we must progress to a diminished role for the public sector, improving agriculture and infrastructure and eliminating the red tape that hampers investments. ‘Inclusive growth’ is now a national idea but poorly implemented because of bad administration. Administrative reform in recruitment, transfers,training, evaluation, promotion, tenures and transfers, specialisation, accountability, disciplinary actions, etc, are overdue.

India is not a superpower now or will be any time soon, not a country that has the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, and sometimes, in more than one region of the globe at a time.

High GDP growth does not make us one. It has to pervade all sectors and people. Millions just subsist, almost 500 million Indians have no access to electricity, consumption of manufactured goods and of food grains, sugar, pulses, edible oils, milk, etc, even fast moving consumer goods and durable consumer goods, are very low in relation to population size, as are access to sanitary facilities, pukka housing, health care, and a good education.

The ‘real’ economy is pitifully small. India is not a major factor in international trade, and is mostly a net importer. Foreign exchange reserves are hardly 15 per cent of China and foreign investment is mainly in shares, loans and deposits.
Infrastructure, restrictive labour laws which have held back labour intensive manufacture, a procedure ridden bureaucracy with no individual accountability, have hindered substantial investments in industry and infrastructure. Government has huge borrowings and deficits. Agriculture has had negative public investment growth in real terms and remains dependent on the monsoon. Productivity is falling. Water management is poor. Subsidies on fertilisers, food, kerosene, debt write-offs, have replaced investment in agriculture capital assets.

Our youthful population gives a growing domestic market and insulates us from global fluctuations. Poor access to good education and training, and health and nutrition, can make it a disaster. The software industry is well developed as also management, advertising, market research, economic forecasting, design capability, etc. We can leapfrog technologies as we have done with mobile telephony, and biotechnology, stem cell research or renewable energy, etc.

The top priority has to be reform of administration with transparency and consultation with stakeholders. That requires decentralisation to give local communities a greater role in services delivery. To take decisions locally, urban and rural local bodies must have authority, funds, capacity and training to deal with matters like teacher attendance, teaching quality, health centre functioning, expenditure on facilities, distribution of cheap fertilisers, electricity, etc and community asset creation.
Rather than boasting of superpowerdom we should focus on doing the necessary things to provide a good life to our people.

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