The measure of India: what makes greatness?


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IN 1999, months after India had tested five nuclear devices in the Rajasthan desert, I was interviewing Inder Gujral, who had been India’s prime minister in 1997. Gujral was known as a peacemaker – a soft-spoken, thoughtful veteran of the Indian independence movement. With his white hair combed back and his neatly trimmed moustache and goatee, he sat in the library of his spacious home on Janpath and repeated the question I had just asked: ‘What did testing nuclear weapons accomplish for India?’ The answer, Gujral explained, was basic and profound. ‘The world gives respect to countries with nuclear weapons. Do you think it is an accident that the five permanent members of the Security Council have nuclear weapons?’ Gujral insisted that India would never use nuclear weapons offensively, or in a first-strike. He did not really think of them as weapons. Rather, nuclear weapon capability manifested India’s world-class greatness. Nuclear weapons marked India’s arrival as a major power.

Leaving the former prime minister’s house, I admired the manicured lawn adjacent to the driveway. I exited through a security-guarded gate, past the wall protecting the house, and walked toward the taxi I had asked to wait for me. The taxi sat under a shady tree, on the dirt buffer between the wall and the wide capital boulevard. As I approached, the driver bolted upright from the passenger seat. He had been napping and the sound of footsteps awakened him and sent him scrambling out of the car and around to the hood. He held in his hand a dark tool that resembled a tire iron. He raised the hood and pushed the tool into the engine block and began cranking. He cranked and he cranked, trying to get the engine to turn over. When finally the motor sputtered to life, the driver looked up at me gleefully and bid me into the car. As the taxi trundled along the boulevard leading away from Gujral’s house, I sat in the back and chuckled. I thought of what the former prime minister had said. The driver heard me and turned his head slightly back, shrugging his shoulders in humility. ‘Old car,’ he said, endearingly. ‘Yes,’ I said, as much to myself as to him, ‘and it works.’

Let us consider India on the scales of greatness. In other words, ask: by what standards do people regard a state as great? And how does India conform to those standards?

These are not questions on which I personally would fixate. Greatness in terms of power is not a standard that moves me as a human being. My impulse when looking at countries is to say, ‘what’s so great about being great?’ I think a country’s taxi drivers tell us more about it than the number of nuclear bombs it might possess. The number of Ph.D. holders, engineers and writers driving taxicabs in a country, and where they came from, tells me a lot about the country we’re in and the country from whence they came. The taxi driver in Iran who complains bitterly about the ayatollahs and wants to talk about pop music and freedom tells me something about Iran. The engineer who fled Nigeria for the opportunity possible in America, even if it’s driving a cab, tells me something about Nigeria and the US. Great power has little to do with it.



Nevertheless, greatness is on people’s minds now when they think about India. Not only Indian elites, but also American politicians, diplomats and scholars talk about India’s looming greatness on the international stage. Businesspeople who haven’t done business in India talk about the greatness of its market. So, it is not unnatural to delve further into the matter and ask, what makes a great power, and is India emerging as one? As we begin this consideration, I must warn you that at the end I will return to question this question.

What makes a great power?

Social scientists, in their quest to emulate natural scientists, have devoted considerable effort to identify indices of great power. Unfortunately, while laws of nature may exist for natural scientists to discover, human societies act contingently. Freedom, irrationality, perception and misperception – these and other human traits defeat the effort to discover objective and useful measures of power. Power within and between states derives from intangible as well as tangible attributes.



Thus, the United States was a great power in the 1960s and ’70s yet lost a major war to Vietnam, a developing country. Similarly, the Soviet Union floundered on the rocks of Afghanistan and never recovered. Is France a major power today? It possesses two seemingly vital attributes of major powerdom – nuclear weapons and a veto in the UN Security Council – yet neither enabled France to deflect the US and the UK from resorting to war in Iraq. Many other examples can be adduced to show the difficulties of measuring effective international power.

That said, Kenneth Waltz – perhaps the most famous contemporary western theorist of international relations – provides a useful colloquial definition of power as the ‘extent that [one] effects others more than they affect [one].’ A state’s power is a combination of its capacity to resist the unwelcome influence of others, and, conversely, to influence others to behave as it wants them to.1

Of course, social scientists do not leave the definitional exercise there. Searching for greater precision, empiricism and testability, they have sought to distinguish the most important, quantifiable determinants of state power.2 Given the role of warfare in world history, analysts posit that military power is perhaps most important.3 Military power in turn depends at least to some degree on a state’s (or alliance’s) human and material resources. Hence, most evaluations of state power include measurements of population, economic output, and technological/industrial capacity.4 These indices add depth and quality to the assessment of a state’s military power.



Still, in war as in other international contests for influence, the state with the most military strength often does not prevail.5 Military hardware and troops, population, economic output, and technological sophistication offer potential power, just as height offers potential basketball talent. But not all tall people are great basketball players, and not all teams with the tallest players win championships. Other attributes transform physical potential into success at given challenges, including in international affairs.



The quality of governance helps determine the efficiency with which natural and human resources can be converted into wealth and economic strength. A government capable of providing health, education and other public goods and services can make the difference between a sick, hungry, ignorant population and a healthy, educated and productive workforce. The former is more likely to be powerful than the latter.6 Governmental efficacy in turn depends at least in part on social factors such as national cohesion and cultural unity.7

In international affairs, a state’s diplomatic, strategic and intelligence acumen can determine whether raw physical capacity translates into effective power.8 Scholars and authorities recently have given greater due to such non-material sources of international power – ‘soft power’ in Joe Nye’s words. States can gain influence through diplomacy, moral standing, market attractiveness, intelligence-gathering capabilities and the charisma of individual leaders, whether or not they have great military power.

Thus, power in the international system derives from material capabilities and the wherewithal to translate those capabilities into the effective pursuit of foreign policy objectives. Power cannot be measured satisfactorily through quantitative indices alone. Measures of raw capability must be balanced with subjective evaluations of a state’s effectiveness.

Is India emerging as a major power?

So, how does India fare on these scales?9 Allow me briefly to survey India’s performance in four key domains: socio-economic; political; military-security; and diplomatic.



Socio-Economic Indicators: Overall GDP says something about a state’s collective power potential. Yet, the size of the population that both produces and lives off GDP tells us more (but not all) about the society’s productivity and about its citizens’ quality of life. Thus, GDP measured on a basis of per capita purchasing power parity gives a finer picture of a state’s position. Here, for example, India’s (and China’s) great populations bring down their rankings. India’s estimated 2002 per capita GDP at purchasing power parity was $2,540. China’s was $4,600. (Brazil’s in 2000, was $7,400).



Relatively low per capita GDP probably indicates that citizens have many unfulfilled longings and aspirations for basic social-economic goods. This in turn establishes major challenges and priorities for government. Simply put, states with low per capita GDP struggle to translate their aggregate productivity into effective power. For example, India, China and Brazil, rank near the bottom of per capita, PPP GDP comparisons of regional and global powers. These states’ leaders have much work to do to mobilize their societies to be able to achieve first-order domestic objectives, let alone undertake ambitious international projects.

Other measures help evaluate states’ socio-economic health and prospects. The United Nations Human Development Index, for example, provides a rough assessment of how states meet their citizens’ basic needs, which in turn affect current and potential productivity. The HDI is comprised of four variables: life expectancy at birth, adult literacy rate, school enrolment, and GDP per capita (PPP $US). While the value of this indicator is debatable, it shows that India ranks 115th out of 162 countries for which data was available. China is ranked 87th. India’s National Security Council Secretariat uses a variant of this index, which it calls the Population Index. This takes a country’s population and multiplies it by its Human Development Index coefficient. The aim is to adjust the ‘value’ of a state’s population to take into account the development of that population. Of the 29 countries ranked, India places 27th, ahead only of Pakistan and Nigeria, according to India’s National Security Council Secretariat.10



Education strongly affects a society’s prospects for increasing economic productivity, obtaining greater value for each ‘exertion’. Here India seems bifurcated. India has absolutely world-class scientific and technological education institutions. The Indian Institutes of Technology admit and graduate a large number of the world’s best young technologists, not only in information technology but also other branches of engineering. The Indian Institute of Science and other higher education institutions produce large numbers of top-class scientists. Thus, India is recognized as a world-class player in at least three vitally important sectors of the 21st century global economy: information technology, biotechnology and space.



At the same time, however, India performs miserably in providing primary education to its large population. Much of India’s workforce lacks the basic knowledge and skills required for effectiveness in a modern industrial and service economy.11 With 60% of the population living rural lives tied to agriculture, the lack of adequate rural schooling, especially for girls, imposes a major handicap on India’s prospects.

A state’s share in world trade can indicate many things. On one hand, a large share of world trade can give a state international power insofar as others may depend on that state as a buyer of their goods and services or as a seller of key goods and services to them. Power may be wielded either by the promise of providing or withholding more or less of what others want. At the same time, though, an internationally engaged state can be subjected to influences by its trading partners. On balance, economic theory and history suggest that trade heightens efficiency and the production of wealth. This suggests a correlation between share of world trade and power potential. While these statistics are difficult to aggregate, India accounts only for roughly one per cent of world trade in goods and services.

Recently, analysts have developed indices of corruption. Corruption would seem to indicate the quality of governance, rule of law, and general levels of development. These attributes no doubt affect a state’s capacity to turn its resources into desired goods, to mobilize its potential. Corruption levels also reflect the attractiveness of a state to investors, which again speaks to power potential. India ranks low in international comparisons of corruption, among the most corrupt 30% of those countries surveyed.12

Corruption may help explain the fact that India’s recently sound rate of growth has not produced a commensurate reduction in poverty. Whereas GDP has grown by 6% from 1992-93, the rate of poverty alleviation has been only a bit over 1% per year. Accounting for population growth of 1.8%, the rate of poverty alleviation still lags significantly behind the rate of growth. In other words, economic growth does not automatically or magically reduce poverty.



The World Bank economist, Martin Ravillon explains that the bulk of India’s poor live in rural villages dependent on agriculture and that India’s agricultural sector lags behind the overall level of economic growth which is driven largely by services.13 Also, India’s economic growth has occurred chiefly in regions that are already better off. The poorest regions of the country have experienced the least growth and development. Third, even within the rural sector, some regions exploit economic growth to lower poverty while others don’t.

Analyses such as Ravillon’s highlight the role of governance in augmenting economic growth and development. The state – or states – carries responsibility for providing the infrastructure, educational, and health resources necessary to improve the capacities of the 25% of Indians who remain impoverished. As Ravillon reports, the Indian states with effective programmes to promote literacy and health care, especially for women, grow better. The states with better rural roads, irrigation, and other infrastructure also do better. Unfortunately, he concludes, no state in India has developed good rural infrastructure and human resource programmes.



India is caught in a vicious circle here. The central government’s fiscal deficit has run at a debilitating 10% of GDP since 1998. Interest payments on this debt comprise the largest single government expense. Fiscal debt servicing combines with defence spending and subsidies to total 60% of the budget. Insufficient funds remain for necessary investments in health, education and infrastructure. Economists identify several methods for reducing the fiscal deficit, but in a democracy, interest groups mobilize to block each of these pathways to fiscal solvency.14 India’s emergence as a major global power will depend significantly on whether it can simultaneously mobilize investment to improve the capacities of its poor and reduce its fiscal deficit.

One last word about economics: commentators in India and around the world compare India’s economic performance to China’s. This is natural: India and China are neighbours, the only two countries with more than one billion citizens. They both strive for global power. In such economic comparisons, India tends to fall behind China. However, economic comparisons overlook the vital qualitative distinction of India’s democracy. Political evolution may (or may not) bring unforeseeable destabilizing changes to China. India’s economic progress may be more sustainable for having been democratically produced. Most important, though, the political freedom and justice available in India are profoundly valuable in their own right. The ultimate measure of a state and society is the quality of life its members enjoy. This transcends calories consumed, television hours watched, and automobile rides enjoyed.15



State capacity and political cohesion: This discussion of economics points directly toward a second category of state power, namely governmental capacity and political cohesion.16

To produce and sustain significant power a state must have a political system that citizens support. A state with a disgruntled or dissident citizenry will divert precious resources to impose order and will not be able to mobilize the full creativity and energy of its people.

Politics also serve broader human needs than efficiency. People participate in politics to pursue justice, liberty, glory, community and other virtues and vices. To the degree that a government does not help its citizens to achieve these values and aspirations, that state’s long-term power probably will wane. A society’s morale depends heavily on the qualities of its governors – leaders. Political leaders who do not embody justice, communal toleration, fraternity, and altruism will not foster government that pursues these attributes.



Factiousness is an important but often ambiguous variable of state health. As proponents of checks and balances note, government that allows factiousness can protect the rights and interests of minorities by preventing a large majority from coalescing and dominating a polity. One measure of liberal democracy’s genius is its tendency to enable factions to cancel each other out. On the other hand, a state constantly embroiled in factional disputes will find it difficult to make and execute major strategic decisions or to satisfy the aspirations and values even of a majority.

In each of the terms discussed above – legitimacy, order, efficiency, moral-political values, factiousness, and initiative – India has performed to mixed effect. This is no small achievement. No state in history has been as populous, diverse, stratified, poor and democratic as India. The attempt to resolve all of its internal conflicts through democratically representative government leads to muddling, almost by definition.17

Francine Frankel has described the multifaceted political transformations India is now undergoing: ‘The electoral upsurge of historically disadvantaged groups, the political organization of lower castes and dalits in competition with each other and in opposition to upper castes, fragmentation of national political parties, violence between Hindus and Muslims… and the emergence of Hindutva… as the most important ideological challenge to the constitutional vision of the liberal state.’18



Each of these phenomena involves competition to acquire the power and patronage that come with government office at the state and union levels. Meanwhile, imperatives of economic liberalization and globalization require diminishing the role of government in overall national activity. Representative democracy gives long-disadvantaged groups opportunities to mobilize and compete for control of government and, therefore, patronage. At the same time, the ‘rules’ of private markets do not provide such clear avenues for the disadvantaged to advance. So, will the shrinking of government intensify political conflict? Will, or should, political actors concentrate primarily on how the pie is divided – patronage – or on making a bigger pie – reform?

Here the current central government of India reveals conflicting tendencies. On one hand, economic reformers seek to bake a larger pie. On the other hand, the BJP, whipped onward by its highly mobilized and more extreme sister-organizations, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), concentrates on the flavour of the pie and who is entitled to partake of it and under what terms.



The carnage in Gujarat last year dramatizes the stakes in this conflict over the very essence of the Indian nation’s and state’s identity. Yet India’s manifold diversity precludes easy conclusions about the likely outcome. The BJP aspires for sustained national leadership. This has required it to temper its social agenda in order to attract diverse political partners into the coalition it needs to rule the Union government. Among the current government’s 22 coalition partners are many that do not subscribe to Hindutva. Geographically, the Hindutva movement draws its strength primarily in northern Indian states.

The Hindutva movement’s campaign to define India’s national identity in one uniform way heightens tensions not only among Hindus and Muslims, but along geographic and other lines as well. This campaign for cultural nationalism contravenes the essence of India’s ‘democratic nationalism’, in Achin Vanaik’s words. Democratic nationalism seeks to ‘try and build a sense of Indianness which recognizes and respects the fact that there are different ways of being and feeling Indian, and that it is precisely these plural and diverse sources of a potential nationalism that constitute its strength.’19

Thus, at the same time India is generating the material economic and military resources to become a major global power, the Indian political system struggles to clarify the nation’s essential identity. The outcome of this struggle cannot be predicted. Yet, the character and conduct of the struggle will profoundly affect India’s cohesion and stability. It also will affect the way the rest of the world regards India.

Will India gain greater global respect as a decidedly Hindu nation in a 21st century world defined in civilizational terms?20 Or, as the writer Raja Mohan has suggested, will India win global power and respect as an exemplar of the Enlightenment project into Asia? Arguments can be made on behalf of either course. Yet, if analysts of international power are correct, then the most empowering course will be the one that provides the greatest mass of the Indian populous with the education, infrastructure, and political-economic liberty and security necessary to lead productive lives. The most successful course will be the one that strengthens the cohesion and allegiance of the greatest number of India’s diverse citizens and groups. In an inherently pluralistic society, pluralism, not cultural nationalism, offers the only viable model to release the creative energies of a vast population. Or so it seems at least to this observer.



Military-Security Indicators: Now I turn to the most classic indicator of great power – military strength. Measuring military power is more complicated than it might seem. First, for the measurement to be meaningful, there must be a requirement against which the state’s military power is being measured. What are the threats the military is to deter and/ or defeat? Second, measuring effectiveness itself is difficult. (War provides a real empirical test, but states would like to know the effectiveness of their military before they enter war.) Expenditures can be measured easily, but do not necessarily indicate military effectiveness. So, too, numbers of men under arms, and numbers of tanks, aircraft and ships do not necessarily connote fighting effectiveness.



All states might naturally desire absolute security – confidence that no adversary or combination of adversaries could do one any harm. Yet, in the real world states settle for relative security. And the degree of security a state practically seeks depends in large part on its basic capabilities at a given time. In other words, a state’s security ambitions can grow as its power potential grows. This has happened in India.

India’s military security challenges begin at home, with internal security against insurgents and terrorists. The next and most dramatic ring of the threat circle encompasses Pakistan. India seeks to deter or defeat Pakistani support of subversion within India, including most prominently, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. India also must deter or defeat Pakistani attempts to escalate the conflict between the two countries. India strives to retain a free hand to punish Pakistani violence by imposing greater losses on Pakistan than Pakistan imposes on India. This amounts to dominance of the potential escalatory process.

Beyond the need to dominate a potential escalatory process with Pakistan, India also requires the capacity to deter or physically deny China from imposing on India an unacceptable resolution of their border dispute. India also wishes to deny China the prospect of coercive blackmail – of having enough military power to compel India to heed China’s demands for fear of military action that India could not counter. Next, India seeks to protect its sea lines of communication to the east, toward Indo-China and to the west through the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.



India recently has increased significantly its expenditure on and accumulation of military instruments. The budget for fiscal year 2003-04 raises defence spending by 17%. This is the fourth consecutive year of annual defence budget increases greater than 12%. India has signed at least $4 billion worth of contracts with Russia in the last couple of years to purchase advanced military equipment.

When Indian leaders tested nuclear weapons in May 1998 many in the nation felt that India finally had entered the ranks of major power. Indian scientists and engineers have continued to increase the state’s stockpile of nuclear materials and weapons. In 2003 India is estimated to possess 40 or more nuclear weapons. The technical composition of India’s nuclear arsenal remains publicly unclear – we do not know how many, if any, of these weapons are thermonuclear, boosted-fission, or fission. India’s capacity to deliver nuclear weapons also continues to expand. Fighter-bomber aircraft remain the principal means of delivery. At least three models of mobile ballistic missiles are also being developed and deployed – the short-range Prithvi, and the Agni I and Agni II – with longer-range Agni IIIs and IVs on the drawing board.

Yet, nuclear weapons are not sufficient to make a major power. Otherwise, Pakistan, too, would be a major power. Pakistan possesses rough nuclear parity with India. So, too, Israel and perhaps North Korea would qualify as major powers if nuclear weapons were sufficient for this rank.



Neither nuclear weapons nor a recent dramatic increase in conventional military procurement, largely from Russia, has freed India from Pakistani security threats. India’s growing military and economic strength heightens the frustrated desire to ‘teach Pakistan a lesson once and for all.’ But Indian statesmen also recognize that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons make decisive military intervention to punish Pakistan enormously risky. So India is stuck with relatively manageable insecurity viz a viz Pakistan.

Regarding China, India finds itself on a more positive trajectory. India’s growing economic, military and diplomatic strength, combined with China’s desire to concentrate on internal political-economic development, induces Beijing to improve relations with New Delhi. India’s rather astute cultivation of better ties with both the US and China, has encouraged Beijing to seek better relations with India. Beijing wants India not to align closely with the US against China. New Delhi and Beijing thus augment their military capabilities while simultaneously engaging in mutual diplomatic reassurance. On balance, India steadily has improved its security relationship with China.

In closing this section, let me anticipate a protest I have heard from many Indian friends recently. India passionately seeks to decouple or de-hyphenate Pakistan from India. Treating the two states like twins diminishes India. India is greater than Pakistan in every regard except one: nuclear weapons. But, unfortunately for India and the world, nuclear weapons are great equalizers. The world, including of course the US government, fears the humanitarian horror that nuclear weapons could unleash in South Asia, but also the dangerous disordering effects on the international system. So, when Pakistan, or terrorist groups affiliated with it, instigates a crisis in Kashmir, and India responds by threatening military retaliation, the world worries that the escalatory process could lead to nuclear war.

We know that this fearful reaction might play into Pakistan’s interest. But the fact that India naturally threatens military escalation makes it impossible to discount the possibility of warfare that could lead to nuclear use. Nuclear weapons gave Pakistan this capacity to stay in the game, to continue to pop up and grab India by the dhoti. Neither the US nor India has the power to compel Pakistan to do otherwise. Neither one of us can take over Pakistan; and neither would benefit from the results of economically strangulating Pakistan. Thus, neither India nor the US can escape from the reality that we have to deal with Pakistan.



Finally, on Pakistan, let me offer a highly debatable point that I have not seen made elsewhere. I believe that the prominence and power of the Pakistani Army, intelligence services and jihadis will not diminish as long as the prominence and power of the Hindutva agenda are rising in India. These two internal dynamics are related; they feed on each other. Pakistanis cite the RSS and VHP as proof that Hindus are out to destroy Muslims and, of course, Pakistan. The RSS and VHP, of course, use the prominence of Islamist parties and terrorist organizations in Pakistan as proof that Muslims are evil. My point is simply that pursuit of the Hindutva agenda will only tighten the handcuffs, the hyphen, that connects Pakistan to India. The only way for India to liberate itself from Pakistan is through pluralist liberalism, not cultural nationalism.



Statecraft Indicators: Statecraft can increase or decrease a country’s influence relative to its material capabilities. The combination of leadership, strategic vision and tactics, moral example and persuasion, and diplomatic acumen can earn a state great international influence.

The potency of India’s statecraft has ebbed and flowed in decades-long tides. The currently rising tide follows decades of trough after the Nehru years.

The overt demonstration of India’s nuclear weapon capabilities seems to have heightened Indian leaders’ confidence in developing and prosecuting an international diplomatic strategy. Since 1998, under the leadership of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, India displayed new vigour and imagination in its interactions with the United States, China, Pakistan, Russia, the European Union and other counterparts.21

In early 2003, Indian leaders showed how far their strategic and diplomatic acumen has evolved since the days of knee-jerk moralistic denunciations of US power. India did not support the Bush Administration’s decision to intervene militarily in Iraq. At the same time, Indians have felt that the US displays disingenuousness or hypocrisy in waging war against Saddam Hussein as a terrorist, while supporting Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf. In Indian eyes, Pakistan is a greater source of terrorism than Iraq.

Whereas Indian leaders in decades past would have blasted the US in morally laden denunciations, New Delhi in 2003 displayed diplomatic savoir faire. ‘India has not been happy with the US because of its inability to pressure Pakistan on cross-border terrorism and lifting of sanctions,’ an Indian official declared, ‘but the government did not go beyond saying that it was "disappointed" over the move. The government was not going by the sentiment; national interest weighed supreme in the minds of decision-makers.’22

Prime Minister Vajpayee summed up the new statesmanship tellingly: ‘We have to take the totality of the situation into consideration and craft an approach which is consistent with both our principles and our long-term national interest. Our words, actions and diplomatic efforts should be aimed at trying to achieve pragmatic goals, rather than creating rhetorical effect. Quiet diplomacy is far more effective than public posturing.’23 This insight, if applied regularly, which is very difficult to do in a democracy, could greatly increase India’s influence in the halls of global power.



However, in terms of international institutions and regimes, as distinct from bilateral relations, India’s recent record is more mixed. India’s Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran, played a leading role in the November 2001 World Trade Organization negotiations. To a large extent, Maran represented many weaker developing countries, in addition to India. In this role, Maran contested the US and other major economic powers. Fairly or not, the richer countries, particularly the US, felt that Maran typified an old, unwelcome and counter productive Indian style of moralism and doggedness. Indians from more internationally competitive industries shared this evaluation, while others favouring trade protectionism viewed him as a champion. Looking ahead, to the degree that India’s economic future and, therefore, its international standing depend on a growing role in global trade, Indian diplomacy may need further adjustment.



The international nonproliferation regime also comprises an arena for Indian diplomacy. The global nonproliferation regime faces grave problems. India has conflicting interests. It opposes the further spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. It also wants to be recognized as a nuclear-weapon state and to be freed of export denials and other limitations relating to India’s non-membership in the NPT. Indian leaders exhort the US and others to remove bars to nuclear and other technology transfer to India. The US, Japan and others resist, arguing that removing limitations on India would reward proliferation and undermine the interests of the 180-plus states that have forsworn nuclear weapons through adherence to the NPT. Current evidence does not allow a sound prediction of how India and the world will fare on this matter.

Finally, India, as other states, regards a permanent seat on the UN Security Council as a measure of major power. But India would be unlikely to win a vote to award it such a seat, either from the current Security Council members or the General Assembly. One measure of Indian diplomacy in the future will be how it either lowers the value of a Security Council seat and therefore makes India’s power ranking independent of such a position, or alternatively how India attains a seat.



Where does this survey leave us? What can we say about measuring India for greatness? India’s National Security Council Secretariat has produced a National Security Index that ranks countries’ with a composite measurement of military, demographic and economic indices. India ranks 10th in the world, just behind Israel. (The ranking: US, Japan, China, South Korea, Germany, France, Russia, UK, Israel, India.)24 Does being number ten make one a major power? Is the cut-off at number five? Number twelve?

Subjectivity is inescapable here, so I suggest that the bottom-line question is whether India gets what it wants from other states and the international system. No state gets all of what it wants all of the time, but does India get much of what it wants much of the time?

The answer appears mixed. India does not get what it wants in all these domains; it can’t make others say ‘yes’ to Indian demands. But India is powerful enough to say ‘no’ to most if not all demands of others. One way to mark India’s progress will be to see how often it exerts its power to say ‘no’ to others’ preferences, versus the frequency with which India persuades others to say ‘yes’ to its preferences. As the Indian ‘nos’ decrease and the rest of the world’s ‘yeses’ increase, India’s power will rise.

I close with a thought experiment that may help American observers to appreciate the magnitude of the Indian challenge and what it may tell us about power. Imagine the United States admitting Mexico as the 51st state in the union. The very proposition elicits visions of politicians in Washington decrying the drain of resources to bring Mexico’s millions of poor up to US standards of health care, income, and education. What of language? Will the new Mexican citizens be obligated to learn English? How would education standards be set and achieved? The burden of adopting Mexico is beyond the comprehension of most in the US.

Continuing the thought experiment, let’s add not only Mexico but also Canada, Central America and South America. Yes, let’s add to the United States of the Americas Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador… Chile, Uruguay…. Venezuela with it’s turmoil… Columbia with its civil conflict, drug cartels… Brazil with its teeming cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo… Argentina with its fiscal crisis.



If the United States of America became the United States of the Americas, the population would be 824 million. It’s gross domestic product would be $12.46 trillion (compared to $10 trillion for the US alone). Per capita GDP of the new entity would be roughly $15,000 (compared to roughly $35,000 in the US alone). Imagine the conduct of elections in this population and the resultant mélange of interests, accents, and histories that would animate the deliberations of the new congress in Washington. Imagine the burdens the president would feel – the attorney general, the FBI director, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. In fact, the prospect defies imagination. It is incomprehensible.

And yet, the United States of the Americas would still contain 200 million people fewer than India. It would still be less diverse ethnically, linguistically, religiously and historically than India. And it would be 25 times richer than India.

The United States of the Americas would be much more troubled and difficult to govern than the US today. It would be poorer, less stable, more corrupt, and less secure in many ways. Yet the size of the United States of the Americas alone would make its leaders and people feel that it must of course be treated as a great power. Citizens and, especially leaders, would feel that if we kept our massive and diverse polity together and on a course of economic advancement without either imploding or threatening our neighbours the United States of the Americas would deserve world historical commendation.

The idea that other powers – outsiders with fewer challenges and many more resources per capita – would impose their standards in determining whether to grant the United States of the Americas a prime place in the international community would prompt outrage. Politicians, pundits and barroom patrons would declaim: does the rest of the world have any idea how hard it is just to maintain order, rule of law, economic growth and democracy in this country?

This simple thought experiment may suggest that the relativity of great power in the international system is misleading when thinking of a state and society as enormous and complicated as India. Perhaps the notion and language of ‘great power’ is irrelevant when it comes to India. May be we should keep score a different way. India, as an ancient and at once diverse and somehow unified civilization of more than one billion people, deserves recognition for making steady progress under democratic governance without trampling on its neighbours. India achieves greatness by maintaining a democratic rule- of-law government and living in relative peace. India achieves greatness by improving the quality of life of its free citizens.


* 2003 Annual Fellows’ Lecture. The Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania, 23 April 2003. Reproduced with permission.



1. Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics. (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1979), 191-192.

2. RAND Corporation analysts led by Ashley Tellis recently developed one of the most comprehensive and dynamic power measuring models. The RAND group concludes that ‘national power is ultimately the product of the interaction of two components: a country’s ability to dominate the cycles of economic innovation at a given point in time and, thereafter, to utilize the fruits of this domination to produce effective military capabilities that, in turn, reinforce existing economic advantages while producing a stable political order, which is maintained primarily for the country’s own strategic advantage but also provides benefits for the international system as a whole.’ Tellis, et al, Measuring National Power in the Postindustrial Age: Analysts Handbook (Santa Monica: RAND, 2000), p. 4. The RAND analysts then detail five building blocks of power under the category of ‘National resources’: technology, enterprise, human resources, financial/capital resources, physical resources. Three factors under the category of ‘national performance’ augment or detract from the utilization of national resources: external constraints, infrastructural capacity, ideational resources. ‘Military capability’ is the product of an interaction between national resources and national performance. While interesting and realistically detailed, this model is explicitly gearîò toward assessing the capacity of a state to achieve and sustain global hegemony. Assessing the emergence of potential major powers does not seem to require a model as detailed as that proffered by the RAND group.

3. For a summary of the historical methods of determining great power status, see Jack Levy, War in the Modern Great Power System, 1945-1975 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983), pp. 10-19.

4. The most notable of these is the Correlates of War military capabilities index. Singer, Bremer and Stuckey, ‘Capability Distribution, Uncertainty, and Major Power War, 1820-1965,’ in Bruce M. Russet, Peace, War and Numbers (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1972), pp. 19-48.

5. John Mearsheimer cites this failure of the stronger state to always prevail in conflicts as a reason for measuring power in terms of material capabilities, rather than the ability to prevail in conflict. He focuses his measure of material capacity on military power because military force remains ‘the ultimate ratio of international politics.’ John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton and Co. 2001), pp. 55-57. In 1977, Joseph Nye gave four reasons why military force had become more costly to use, and therefore was less singularly relevant to state power: risks of nuclear escalation; resistance by people in poor, weak countries; uncertain and possibly negative effects on the achievement of economic goals; and domestic opinion opposed to the human costs of the use of force. Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, Power and Interdependence (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977), p. 228.

6. For a further discussion of this point, see Bruce Russett and Harvey Starr, World Politics: The Menu for Choice (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1989), pp. 142-143.

7. National cohesion and universalistic culture are examined along with international institutions as ‘intangible’ sources of power by Joseph Nye in Bound to Lead (New York: Basic Books inc. 1990).

8. David Singer, one of the primary architects of the COW index, writes that these type of factors are ‘contributory to national power and the efficiency with which material capabilities are used, but not a component of that power.’ His decision not to include them in the index is based, then, not on a refusal to acknowledge their importance, but on a decision to make a semantic exclusion of such vague, difficult-to-measure variables. David Singer and Paul F. Diehl, Measuring the Correlates of War (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), p. 55.

Kenneth Waltz includes the variable of ‘competence’ in his list of the components of power, along with size of population and territory; resource endowment; economic capabilities; and military strength. Waltz, it must be noted however, makes no attempt to quantify any of these variables, stating only that their relative importance fluctuates with time, leading to frequent miscalculations regarding the relative power of states. His list of power components is more an acknowledgement of the measurement problem than a solution. Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1979), p. 131.

See also Russett and Starr, Politics: The Menu for Choice, pg. 149.

9. Two recent volumes, by Stephen Cohen and Baldev Raj Nayar and T.V. Paul, similarly seek to assess India’s power position, but in more detail than space allows here. Stephen P. Cohen, India: Emerging Power (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2001), Baldev Raj Nayar and T.V. Paul, India in the World Order: Searching for Major Power Status (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). The Cohen volume is more interpretive, while Nayar and Paul complicate their analysis of India’s capacities with an argument that the US and other recognized major powers systematically prevent India from entering these ranks. The problematic argument unfortunately distracts and detracts from the useful analysis of India’s strengths and weaknesses. Nayar and Paul consider ten power indicators or ‘resources’, in their term. Four ‘hard-power resources’ are military power, economic power, technology, and demographics. Six ‘soft-power resources’ are normative, institutional, cultural, state capacity, strategy and diplomacy, and national leadership. Ibid., 49-62.

10. Satish Kumar, ed., India’s National Security Annual Review, p. 359.

11. Pradeep Agarwal et al., Policy Regimes and Industrial Competitiveness: A Comparative Study of East Asia and India (Houndmills, UK: Macmillan, 2000), p. 272.

12. Human Development in South Asia 1999: The Crisis of Governance. Karachi: The Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre. (waiting for original)

13. Martin Ravillon, presentation to the Brookings Institution-Carnegie Endowment for International Peace conference, ‘Making Globalization Work,’ 2 December 2002, transcript of panel 1, pp. 7-8.

14. Leading debt reduction options are to: reduce the size of government by cutting payrolls and privatizing state enterprises (or alternatively, increase the productivity of government workers and enterprises); attract foreign investment, particularly in infrastructure; increase tax collections (not necessarily tax rates).

15. Still, to achieve the level of economic development that can raise the quality of life of all Indians, especially the poor, the nation must average seven-to-eight per cent annual growth over the next decade.

Sanjaya Baru, ‘The Strategic Consequences of India’s Economic Performance,’ in Satish Kumar, ed., India’s National Security Annual Review 2002 (New Delhi: India Research Press, 2003), 177.

16. The RAND study, Measuring National Power in the Postindustrial Age, considers a state’s ‘capacity to set goals,’ the ‘extent of elite cohesion,’ ‘relative power of social groups,’ the capacity of the state to collect higher levels of taxes from direct levies versus taxes on trade, and so on. Some of these variables admit quantitative measurement, but most require subjective analysis. Op. cit., 22-27.

17. Nayar and Paul write that ‘India is often called a soft state, a state that fails to enforce enacted policies…’ This may be a function of democratization itself. As Francine Frankel has noted, ‘democratization has fragmented political parties along state, sub-regional, caste and religious lines, creating unstable coalition governments, paralyzed from within, without the capacity to carry out unfinished reforms.’ Nayar and Paul, 60. Francine Frankel, ‘Contextual Democracy: intersections of society, culture and politics in India,’ in Francine Frankel, Zoya Hasan, Rajeev Bhargava, Balveer Arora eds., Transforming India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), 20.

18. Francine Frankel, ‘Contextual Democracy: intersections of society, culture and politics in India,’ in Francine Frankel, Zoya Hasan, Rajeev Bhargava, Balveer Arora eds., Transforming India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), 5.

19. Achin Vanaik, ‘Interface Between Democracy, Diversity and Stability,’ in D.D. Khanna, L.L. Mehrotra, Gert W. Kueck eds., Democracy, Diversity, Stability (Delhi: MacMillan India Ltd., 1998), 301.

20. Using Samuel Huntington’s controversial categories, the world can be seen as divided along the following civilizational lines: Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist, Japanese. Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

21. For a more thorough discussion of these developments, see pp. 495-501 in Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb, paperback edition, 2001.

22. Sanjay Singh, ‘Thin Red Line: New Delhi’s Balancing Act,’ Pioneer, 23 March 2003.

23. Sanjay Singh, ‘Thin Red Line: New Delhi’s Balancing Act,’ Pioneer, 23 March 2003.

24. In Kumar, ed., op. cit., p. 352.