Many observers believe that India is too large (and populous) a country to be a secondary actor in the international arena. Yet, India’s dream of becoming part of the big powers’ club never matched the reality. Ever since it attained independence from the British in 1947, India – who has historically maintained a neutral stance, playing a crucial role in the Non-Aligned Movement of colonies and newly independent states – has never managed to play a prominent role in world affairs, despite its size and demographic weight.
Under the leadership of prime minister Narendra Modi – a hard-liner Hindu nationalist with a controversial past who heads the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party – the promise was to move India out of its past lethargy and elevate the country to the ranks of the big powers by building effective strategic relationships, while also maintaining a certain grade of autonomy against bloc politics in order to pursue its national interest.
As world politics are in the midst of a major rebalancing after the coronavirus pandemic – which disrupted economies worldwide – also due to the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, it’s pivot towards the Indo-Pacific, the war in Ukraine and the escalation of US competition with Russia and China, there are two recent developments that show India’s growing weight – both in demographic and economic terms – which could (possibly) contribute to reshaping its role in the international arena.
India’s growth spurt
According to the latest United Nations’ World Population Prospects, India is projected to surpass China as the world’s most populous country by 2023. These figures are not drastically different from the UN’s earlier projections, which said that India would overtake China by 2027. Yet, due to the higher population growth rate of India, the margins between the two Asian giants have come down quicker than previously expected.
India is expected to surpass China mostly due to the current lower fertility rate of its neighbor and rival. In the period between 1965 and1970, China used to have a higher fertility rate that declined rapidly after the one-child policy was introduced, while figures in India are declining at a much slower rate. Moreover, with a median age of 28 years old, Indians are 10 years younger than Chinese. With such a young population that needs to enter the job market, India is battling a lack of employment, which is a major cause of national concern.
Now more than ever, India is willing to use its strategic and market weight of 1.4 billion people by openly taking geopolitical stances and implementing some effective economic reforms to sustain its position on the international arena. The country aims at becoming a reliable commercial partner in the global supply chain. But to attain this goal, it urgently needs to overcome its infrastructure and capital deficits, despite being one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
A journey towards self-reliance
There is a second recent development that needs to be considered when discussing India’s current (and future) status. The former British colony has now overtaken the United Kingdom in terms of aggregated GDP: India is now the 5th largest economy in the world. According to a Bloomberg forecast, thanks to India’s fast-growing economy, there is likely to be a huge gap between India and the UK in the coming years.
The news came as Prime Minister Narendra Modi is urging the country to work towards becoming “developed” by the centenary of India’s Independence in 2047. Despite poverty still being widespread in India, moving past one of the biggest economies in the world – particularly the one that ruled over the sub-continent for two centuries – is a major accomplishment that needs to be celebrated.
Ever since the Covid pandemic, Modi has also started to promote a vision for a self-reliant India (Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan), a program built around five pillars: economy, infrastructure, systems, demography, and demand. Already with its withdrawal in 2019 from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – the world’s biggest free trade deal and economic cooperation zone which India initially contributed to negotiate – New Delhi appeared “to be moving from a strategy of free trade to one of strategic trade”, giving a nod to the nationalists at home, with an eye on countering Beijing as an economic superpower.
India’s need to build strategic partnerships, especially in view of its rivalry with China, is always balanced by the need to maintain its autonomy against the constrains of bloc politics. Since power competition and the regional balance shifted from the India-Pakistan conflict to the one dominated by India-China relations – with India’s renewed fears of encirclement due to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative – New Delhi moved towards Washington by joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), commonly known as the Quad, for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. But, as India intensifies its security partnership with Washington, it is also keeping other alliances alive.
With the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West, New Delhi’s position has become difficult. Ever since the war begun last February, India has maintained a silent stance and abstained from all the resolutions at the UN Security Council and General Assembly that condemned the Russian invasion. In this, New Delhi and Beijing were for the first time on the same line, while the US is silently questioning India’s position. Despite having maintained a non-aligned position during the Cold War, India has historic ties with Moscow, which is still a key supplier of oil and military equipment for the subcontinent and a longstanding ally.
Always the bridesmaid
At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan in mid-September, Modi tried to balance between Russia and the West. During a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he avoided discussions about the Ukrainian issue in order not to upset the United States and their allies. The SCO summit – a Chinese-funded multilateral forum – was also the very first time that the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and the Chinese President Xi Jinping met since the tension that erupted after the clashes on the Himalayan border back in 2020.
As the US try to isolate both China and Russia, the two countries are edging closer to each other and trying to bring new partners on the non-Western side, according to C. Raja Mohan, a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “While Beijing and Moscow might hope to lure New Delhi into a new, anti-Western Asian coalition, India is unlikely to give up on its strategic reorientation toward the United States and its allies. But in the meantime, India is making the most of being wooed by both sides”, he writes.
Yet, India needs to carefully play its cards and keep at bay internal social fractures that triggered international criticism. Although the US will hardly take any action against India – a crucial strategic partner against China – Washington’s annual report on religious freedom this year expressed some concerns. Under the leadership of Narendra Modi, the highest cadres of the ruling party have endorsed Hindu religious extremism: in recent years, majoritarian policies have dangerously exacerbated religious violence and repression, particularly against Muslim and Christian minorities. In this regard, authoritarianism and social divisions will reduce New Delhi’s ability to benefit from its global possibilities and eventually allow external intrusion into its domestic affairs.