Book Review | No room for atavism if India hopes to be a leading world power

The first distinction of importance is the definition of world powers and where India stands or seeks to stand

The rhetoric is compelling, even seductive: India, we are told, has burst upon the world as a great power. This is a message India’s current elite have been flashing day in and out. The motivation is part political and part aspirational. For the first time perhaps India’s elite wish to see their country stand out in the global order to get the respect and rewards it deserves.

While the intent is one that would have the support of all Indians and their global allies, the question is, how exactly is India poised on the world stage? Is it already a great power or is it still in the process of getting there? More important perhaps what does “great power” status entail? And if we are still not there, how might we get there?

These and related questions are perhaps the most pressing in today’s context and need to raised and addressed by India’s ruling elite, intelligentsia and their foreign friends. And this is precisely what the book Grasping Greatness attempts to do, and in doing so becomes one of the most important books on India to appear in recent times.

The first distinction of importance is the definition of world powers and where India stands or seeks to stand. Dr Ashley Tellis in his introductory essay explains the difference between a “leading power, a “balancing (or minor) power” and a true “great power”. The distinction is crucial. “From a realist perspective, great powers in international politics are genuine poles,” he writes. “Their number defines the configuration of the global system… Great powers, accordingly, are system makers. Leading powers in contrast, are not genuine poles. Being largely synonymous with ‘middle powers’, they exist within the architectonic frameworks defined by the great powers.” Lastly, minor powers are system takers who cannot fundamentally change the order of things even somewhat.

Dr Tellis refers to S. Jaishankar’s articulation of India’s foreign policy goals, which suggests that India is seeking to become a “leading” and not a “great” power or just a “balancing” power. However, he argues that while the Indian leadership talks about being just a “leading” power, the ambitions it articulates are suggestive of great power aspirations especially in its stated aims of underwriting the emergence of a multipolar world and a truly multipolar Asia. “[Narendra] Modi’s vision, strictly speaking, envisages India becoming a traditional great power. This conclusion is inescapable if the desire of multipolarity at the global level has any consequential meaning.” The rest of his essay discusses the many impediments to India’s quest for a larger role in global geopolitics, and how they might be overcome. In all, it is a brilliant assessment of where India stands on the global stage.

Another compelling essay in this volume is on India’s foreign policy environment and options written by Dr C. Raja Mohan, who has a knack of presenting even the most complex of topics in a lucid and structured manner. He points out that the “tenure of Narendra Modi as India’s Prime Minister since 2014 has seen some major departures in India’s foreign policy. India has moved decisively towards the United States, stepped up engagement with Europe, reconnected with the Anglosphere, stood up to pressures from China, pushed back against Pakistan’s support for cross-border terrorism, ended the defensiveness in ties to Israel, expanded the engagement with Gulf Arab states, articulated an Indian Ocean policy and embraced the Indo-Pacific geopolitical construct, to name a few.”

Raja Mohan goes on to argue that Prime Minister Modi, “with his muscular nationalism, has been uninhibited in his support for India’s great power ambitions. He has discarded the self-doubt and ambivalence that dogged the foreign policy of his predecessors”.

Having said all that Raja Mohan goes on to discuss how India’s foreign policy has evolved and what some of the challenges to its pursuit of geopolitical power are, including the ones posed by the legacy of Partition and the rise of China.

The book comprises 13 essays on the various aspects of India’s quest for great power status. They include analyses of the economy, administration, the state apparatus, foreign policy and the military. Each of the articles is relevant to the topic and demands attention. Even the seemingly narrow-focused articles discuss one or more critical aspects of India’s evolving story.

For instance, the essay on “Savings and Capital Formation” by Ila Patnaik and Radhika Pandey might seem a little out of context when it really is not given that India’s declining savings ratio in recent years is a cause of huge concern. The correlation between the savings rate and growth and investment is well known, and a focus of economists. India’s savings rate remains well below that of the faster growing Asian economies and has shown a consistently downward trend. To understand this phenomenon and what its remedy might be is crucial to the larger picture of India’s quest for great power status.

The other chapters, on India’s economy as well as those on the Indian federal and national narratives, a blueprint for administrative reforms, the need for military reforms and so forth, all hang together in this brilliant collection dedicated to promote the understanding of India’s evolution in recent times and the goals it aspires to reach.

Grasping Greatness: Making India a Leading Power

Edited by Ashley J. Tellis, Bibek Debroy and C. Raja Mohan


pp. 651, Rs.999

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