India’s Quest for Major Power Status: Challenges and Opportunities

T.V. Paul (2024). The Unfinished Quest: India’s Search for Major Power Status from Nehru to Modi. New York. Oxford University Press. 

In the realm of world politics, the pursuit of international status presents a dual-edged sword for both major and emerging powers. On the one hand, this quest can serve as a catalyst for nations to reinforce their economic, military, and technological prowess, thereby magnifying their global influence and soft power through strategic cultural, educational, and diplomatic endeavours. Yet, an over-the-top emphasis on status can lead to the misallocation of resources, prioritizing grandiose projects at the expense of essential domestic needs, and escalating tensions with rival states. Thus, while the aspiration for status can be well-intentioned when harmonized with prudent governance and sustainable development, it also risks becoming counterproductive if it leads to the neglect of domestic priorities and the fomenting of international discord.

In his scholarly work, T.V. Paul, the James McGill Professor of International Relations at McGill University, explores the challenging journey of India’s aspiration to become a global power. This ambition, which spans from the era of Jawaharlal Nehru to the present leadership of Narendra Modi, is analysed through the lens of status theory, providing a socio-psychological perspective on India’s foreign policy and developmental strategies.

Status Seeking: Virtue and Pitfall 

Paul’s analysis begins by acknowledging the dual nature of status-seeking in international relations. On the one hand, the quest for status can drive nations to enhance their capabilities and influence, fostering national pride, unity, and stability. This pursuit can attract investments and forge beneficial alliances. However, an excessive focus on status can lead to the misallocation of resources, provoke international tensions, and result in the neglect of essential domestic issues. Paul argues that while status seeking can be virtuous when balanced with responsible governance, it can become a pitfall if it leads to domestic neglect and international conflicts.

India’s Strategic Manoeuvres and Obstacles

Since liberalizing its economy in 1991, India has made significant strides, emerging as the world’s fifth-largest economy by 2022. Paul highlights the strategic manoeuvres and obstacles faced by Indian leaders in their quest for global recognition. In the contemporary geopolitical landscape, India stands at a crossroads, with the opportunity to assert itself as a major global player. However, this ascent is not without challenges, particularly the lack of inclusive economic growth and the rising tensions with China.

Paul underlines the notion that the tensions between China and India are part of a broader struggle for international status in the Indo-Pacific region. He defines status as the “collective international recognition of an actor based on its valued material and/or non-material attributes.” The mutual status anxiety between China and India fuels their rivalry, with each eager to assert its prominence on the global stage.

Economic Growth and Human Development Disparities

Paul critically examines the disparity between India’s economic growth and its human development indicators, raising important questions about the relationship between economic policies and developmental outcomes. He emphasizes the need for inclusive development, touching on theories of social justice and equity, and challenges traditional economic models that prioritize GDP growth over equitable distribution. The book argues that India’s lack of attention to human development, particularly in education and skill development for lower castes and minorities, impedes its overall progress.

Internal Challenges and Socio-Economic Inequalities

The book does not shy away from discussing the internal challenges that hinder India’s rise. Paul highlights the socio-economic inequalities, entrenched caste system, and inadequate investment in human capital as significant impediments to India’s progress. He argues that the deeply entrenched caste system continues to favour the upper castes, perpetuating social inequality and limiting access to modern education and economic opportunities for large segments of the population. The COVID-19 pandemic further exposed these vulnerabilities, as India struggled to protect its population from both economic and health crises. 

Paul criticizes India’s economic model for not sufficiently prioritizing inclusive human development. He points out that India’s spending on education and healthcare has been consistently low, which has hurt the country in multifaceted ways, including productivity, employability, and quality of life. He suggests that a developmental state should allocate about 6–7 percent of its GDP on education and a similar amount on health and human welfare to achieve significant progress.

India’s Democratic System and Bureaucratic Challenges

Paul acknowledges that India’s democratic system, while having many strengths, has struggled to shift the attitudes of the political and bureaucratic elite towards inclusive development. He notes that voters often prioritize caste allegiances over developmental performance, and there is inconsistent demand for improvements in public services. The bureaucratic elite, influenced by entrenched hierarchical views, are often resistant to driving change and modernization.

Comparison with China

A key theme in the book is the comparison between India and China, two rising powers with divergent developmental paths and international strategies. Paul contrasts India’s democratic model with China’s authoritarian approach, emphasizing how these differences shape their respective quests for status. He also addresses the persistent and growing rivalry between the two nations, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, where both vie for influence and dominance.

Paul notes that China’s rapid advancement towards global power status serves as an example for India. China’s progress is driven by internal development, external trade and investment, enhanced living standards, and military modernization, albeit through increasingly authoritarian methods. He suggests that India’s elite and public need to be resolute in their efforts to achieve significant transformation.

Soft Power and Human Capital

Paul points out that India possesses numerous soft power assets that could enhance its global status, but many remain underutilized or hindered by countervailing factors. Since the 1990s, India’s soft power has gained global recognition due to rapid economic growth and the proliferation of information through social media and new technologies. Scientific knowledge, embodying both hard and soft power, plays a crucial role in this. Paul suggests that India could benefit from increased interaction and cooperation between local and foreign academic and cultural entities.

Paul emphasizes that India’s greatest asset lies in its human capital. With a population of 1.42 billion, India became the world’s most populous country in April 2023. By 2036, 65 percent of this population will be between the ages of 15 and 59, making it the largest working-age demographic globally. Paul argues that India must significantly improve its low Human Development Index (HDI) ranking to leverage these advantages fully.

Status Milestones and Internal Disparities

Paul acknowledges that India has reached notable international status milestones, but its ranking’s durability and legitimacy remain uncertain due to significant internal disparities. Despite decades of economic growth, India struggles with wide income gaps and inconsistent living standards. Essential middle-income country markers like clean water, healthcare, and infrastructure are still lacking. Paul argues that urgent, inclusive growth measures are needed to prevent status decline, as status is not a linear process and can regress quickly.

 

The Hindutva Project

Paul critiques the Hindutva project, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for its potential to act as a status depreciator for India. He suggests that the BJP needs to adopt nonviolent and reformist components of Hinduism to gain global respect for Hindu values. Paul calls for fundamental reforms to the caste system and the abandonment of discriminatory ideas enshrined in ancient texts like Manusmriti (laws of Manu).

Conclusion

Paul’s work offers a comprehensive critique of India’s journey toward global prominence, frequently comparing its rise with that of China. This comparison, while insightful, sometimes oversimplifies the unique contexts of each nation. China’s prolonged socialist experience stands in stark contrast to India’s capitalist path, with significant implications for state roles in development. Paul also employs status theory to explore how India seeks international recognition and prestige, focusing on socio-psychological aspects and peer-group dynamics. These elements are less tangible and harder to quantify than traditional power metrics, making the theoretical lens both innovative and challenging.

Paul’s analysis reveals the disparity between India’s economic growth and its human development indicators, prompting questions about the relationship between economic policies and developmental outcomes. The emphasis on inclusive development touches on theories of social justice and equity, challenging conventional economic models that prioritize GDP growth over equitable distribution. The book’s critique raises a crucial point: can issues of inequality and social justice be adequately addressed without probing into the economic policies, like neoliberalism, that may exacerbate these problems? Moreover, the concept of international status, inherently subjective and multidimensional, poses difficulties in consistent definition and measurement.   

Despite these challenges, Paul’s work provides a thought-provoking analysis of India’s quest for major power status, explaining the complexities and contradictions inherent in this journey. It is a well-researched study that offers valuable insights into the opportunities and obstacles shaping India’s ongoing pursuit of international status.

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