Can a nation achieve primacy on the global stage with a foreign policy that is overshadowed by a nationalist domestic project? Do terms like “Make America Great Again” or “Atmanirbhar Bharat” clash with ambitions to dominate the global market? And is it possible for a rising power like India to avoid the Thucydides trap, and displace a more established power like China without a war? These are questions that have dominated the concerns of foreign policy watchers for several decades.
In her newest offering Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Global Power , Aparna Pande attempts to analyse India’s path to “greatness”, and what holds it back, with each of these factors divided into separate chapters: India’s demographic capital, economic potential, foreign policy and its military strategy. The title of the book itself will raise enough questions amongst readers, as it presupposes that India isn’t already great.
Many, especially in India will disagree, as the chapter on Geopolitics and Foreign Policy notes. Faith in Indian exceptionalism “pervades and defies India’s external relations,” writes Pande, comparing the deep-seated Indian belief that there is something unique about the nation with the American idea of a “manifest destiny” that drove the U.S. to great power status in the 19th century.
Another point more traditional scholars of Indian foreign policy might cavil at is the use of the word “reluctant”, given that India has hardly lacked boldness on the global stage, whether it was in building the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, liberation of Bangladesh, nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998, or the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal, or more recently, the bombing of installations at Balakot in Pakistan after the Pulwama attack.
Making India Great follows the author’s previous work From Chanakya to Modi: Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy , (2017), but is a contrast to it. While the previous book followed the arc of India’s rise on an upward trajectory since Independence, and spoke of a consistent thread in Indian foreign policy, the author’s latest offering suggests the road ahead isn’t quite as smooth. This is a more measured and critical look at the challenges to Indian diplomacy posed by India’s domestic trajectory, tapering economic growth, lack of reforms in institutions, defence capabilities and the government’s struggles in providing for India’s burgeoning population.
The book offers some advice on these issues, with a spotlight on the economic and bureaucratic reforms that global investors still await, and includes an interesting mini-essay on the state of India’s foreign policy institutions.
The book also focuses on the Modi government’s shift towards more majoritarian policies, suggesting that India’s grand ambitions on the global stage, including a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, can’t be realised if it “turns back the clock” on rights of minorities, lower castes, and women. Pande is by no means a jaded critic of the government and its policies, and had even praised PM Modi in an interview last year for bringing “enthusiasm and passion” to Indian foreign policy not seen since Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister. The book is prescient in that sense, and the concerns it raises are being increasingly vocalised by international commentators like economist Joseph Stiglitz, who said recently that internal divisions in the country fuelled by the state will inevitably “undermine” India’s economic prosperity.
In a similar vein, the book concludes that while pride in ancient traditions and history have built India’s foundations, hyper-nationalism will only weaken its rise as a modern structure.
Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Global Power ; Aparna Pande, HarperCollins, ₹599.