Sovereign nations are those with absolute power over themselves. They cannot be compelled to do what they do not want to do. In international relations, a “great power” is one with influence far outside its borders. Not only can such a power resist external influence, it can impose its will on other nations.
In our time, America remains such a power with influence around the world. This comes because of its dominance across a range of things from military power to being the largest economy, its position as the issuer of the world’s reserve currency and its primacy in technology. Russia, though much weaker than America and also weaker than the erstwhile Soviet Union, also is a major power because of its military strength which is deployed in places like Syria. China of course is now a “great power” because of the strength of its economy, which is six times the size of our GDP, and its military spending, with a budget now four times ours. China has significant influence on entire continents like in Africa, where its investments in infrastructure and other projects give it leverage also in geopolitics.
India does not currently have the economic strength of either America or China. Militarily also we are different. We have the second largest army in the world (behind China’s) but it is essentially a defensive army focused on counter-insurgency within India, especially in Kashmir, and since 2020 also more focused on policing the border against China. It is not a military that projects its power outside our borders to any great extent, or has the capacity to do so.
There are good reasons for us not to have tried to do this either. It does not behove a poor nation to spend its limited resources on developing military strength that is not usable purely for defence. India has, however, still two ways in which it can influence the world. The first is as the world’s most populous democracy, it can align with other democracies and spread democratic values. The second is that as an aspiring power, it can strengthen its economy like China so that it can influence the world through trade and investment.
We have failed on both these counts. Let me explain why. Democracy does not mean just the act of a free and fair election and universal franchise. This is how most of us see it, but this is not how others in the democratic world see democracy. Democracy is as much about free speech, freedom of religion and of economic, social and cultural rights as about voting.
Here we have been found lacking by various global indices that track such things and I agree with those indices. India is partially democratic. For this reason, we can’t use our potential strength. For this reason, we must listen to lectures from other nations on the state of human rights in India and our treatment of the minorities.
On the economy, what more can be said other than that Bangladesh has overtaken us in per person GDP? That country was about 50 per cent behind us in 2014 but has gone ahead and will stay ahead for the near future. Our government data on unemployment and on consumption show that things are not going to be better here anytime soon. Given the trajectory we have taken in the last few years, it is clear we will not become the next China or next America economically.
Around us, Germany, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, because they developed their economy and their technologies, can be seen as having the capacity to influence the world outside their borders in a way few nations can. India is much larger than all of them combined, but does not have such abilities because of our weak economy.
We must remember that China’s influence of the world, which has expanded exponentially since 2000, has not come on the back of its position on the United Nations Security Council. It has the power to veto things in the UNSC but that isn’t the source of its strength, which comes almost entirely from its economy.
These are the things that we should consider when we examine why the Government of India and the ruling party had to give in to the demand of a few Gulf nations. Whether the demand was justified or not is not the point, and whether the BJP should have got India into this mess gratuitously isn’t the point either. Others have written about this. The issue is why the BJP government was compelled to doing something it did not want to do. It is because the BJP was unaware that the government does not have the capacity to deflect all criticism of internal behaviour. We are vulnerable to the external world in ways that have been exposed. What is the lesson for the BJP to be learned? To resist external pressure, it could use India’s inherent assets and try and make democracy stronger by giving more space to human rights and minority rights. This can be done in the short term. Making India a major economic power will take much longer, but a first step can be to assess what has gone wrong over the past few years, especially since 2016.
If it doesn’t want to do either of these, there is a third way in which external influence can be limited. The BJP must not do things that give the outside world a chance to lecture us and to force us to do things we do not want to do.