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India: Promise and Progress

EWI Contact: Jean Dumont de Chassart
Publication Series: Opinion Pieces

As India celebrates the 60th Anniversary of its independence, EWI’s Ortwin Hennig and Neville Bugwadia assess the country’s rise and its implications for a new world order.

Text of the Publication:

On August 15, independent India will turn 60 and the world will take notice.  It has been a long time coming, India’s emergence both as an economic power with an enviable growth rate and a political power with international aspirations.

The last six decades depict a tale of two Indias - with two defining moments.  In 1947, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, enamored with Fabian socialism and strongly influenced by Harold Laski, adopted a mainly socialist path.  In India’s terminology it was a “mixed economy,” which unintentionally managed to combine the worst of both worlds – a massive sluggish government bureaucracy with a small stifled private sector.  That began to change in fits and starts in the mid-1980s, and more radically in 1991, when India opened its economy, cut taxes and reduced regulations.  Predictably, this unleashed latent entrepreneurial spirit and launched an era of strong and sustained economic growth.

That growth rate (a red-hot 9.4 percent in the past fiscal year) is India’s singular achievement domestically and its calling card abroad.  It has lifted over 250 million people into the middle class, more than four times the population of Great Britain, India’s former colonial ruler, and close to the entire population of the United States.  It has propelled more than 30 billionaires onto the Forbes list, put Indian industry on the world map as Indian firms buy companies and properties overseas, and perhaps most importantly, created a sense of confidence, excitement and momentum that is palpable and infectious.  India’s rise – based on enlightened economic policies, its imperfect yet strong democracy, dynamic demography, and (selectively) good educational system - is irreversible.  There is no going back to the failed policies of the past, the “Hindu rate of growth” of approximately 3 percent per year.  In a country with a predominantly young population, this booming economy is their adult experience and environment, and they increasingly view it as their right and destiny. 

It is not clear how India’s accomplishments and confidence at home will translate into power and influence abroad, but the stars are aligned.  The 20th century was dominated by Euro-centric power and culture. That century of Western pre-eminence is over, and power is passing from the US and Europe to Asia.  The East has been ambivalent about or even hostile toward a world order that emerged out of Western domination.  At the same time, leading Asian powers remain cautious about assuming responsibility for reshaping the existing order to meet their concerns effectively.  This period of transition requires East and West to work together on new burden-sharing responsibilities and, in many cases, devise new rules of the game.

Meeting the challenges of the future requires cooperation across East and West. Simply put, a dialogue with India is important because India faces many of the problems and challenges that the world faces.  The EastWest Institute (EWI) recognizes this reality and the urgent need to create new mechanisms for dialogue; in particular, to bring India into innovative discussions on strategic problem-solving.  An example is EWI’s “International Task Force on Preventive Diplomacy” whose members include Mr. Sundeep Waslekar, the President the Strategic Foresight Group. EWI’s Task Force is a new and innovative format comprised of representatives from government, business, civil society and academia who are united by their will to motivate the international community to prevent violent conflict. Through this Task Force, EWI and the Strategic Foresight Group have begun to ensure that India’s voice is heard and plays a prominent role.

India’s strengthened relationship with the US underpins India’s international role.  For decades the two sides were wary of each other and often at odds, as India threw its lot with the Soviet Union and the US supported Pakistan, most visibly during the 1971 war.  Today, India and the US - the world’s most populous and powerful democracies respectively - have a new regard and appreciation for each other.  Also, India and the European Union enjoy good relations, based on commonalities that exceed the mere politico-economic sphere: India, like Europe, embodies many cultures, civilizations and historical experiences, and is home to myriad different languages. The broadly shared goal in India, as in Europe, is not an amalgamation of civilizations, but their coexistence as cultural specificities.  India has also realized that, despite serious differences with both neighbors, better relations with Pakistan and strong economic and political ties with China not only enhance India’s national security but are preconditions to a more robust global role.  India’s secular nature (enshrined in the Constitution), its efforts to give equal status to its Muslim community (which for the most part lives in relative harmony with the Hindu majority, notwithstanding increasing religious extremism on both sides in some quarters), its cultural diversity, and its lack of territorial ambition could make the nation a model for a responsible emerging power in a multipolar world.

To be sure, India’s problems are formidable despite astounding progress.  The rapid rise of its middle class underscores the glaring contrast with the hundreds of millions who live in abject poverty.  India has always been two countries.  As its minister for commerce and industry recently pointed out, India has “300 million people that live on $1 a day. We're talking about 100 years before India hopes to get anywhere close to the US or the EU.”

Nearly a quarter century ago, one of the authors of this piece left India for graduate school in the United States.  It was the height of the “brain drain,” an exodus of talented young Indians who would pursue their hopes and dreams elsewhere.  Today in India, the phrase is a quaint reminder of the past.  Instead, one new face of this proud and emerging nation is a smiling India-born American business executive recently featured on the cover of Forbes magazine. The story, “Back to India,” noted that he spent “35 years building his career in the U.S. Then he went home.”

Ortwin Hennig is Vice President and Head of the Conflict Prevention Program at the EastWest Institute (EWI).  Neville Bugwadia is Vice President, Public Affairs and Communications at EWI.  The views expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Institute, its Board of Directors or other staff.