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8 September 2023

India won’t dominate the 21st century – it will define it

The country will take centre stage at the G20 summit, but its troubles run deep.

By Pratinav Anil

It’s preposterous to suggest that India will dominate our century, either militarily or economically. Yet the idea is gaining momentum. The 21st century, we are told breathlessly, will be “India’s century”. Proponents of the notion liken India to China, but the comparison is grotesque. China’s GDP is six times India’s. Last year, the former added $3trn – another India – to its domestic product. One is a permanent member of the UN Security Council; the other isn’t. India’s foreign service is outnumbered by eight to one – at around 850 its mandarin class is no bigger than Singapore’s – and it shows. India’s neighbours fear China, but only disdain Delhi’s meddling. At 3 per cent, the country’s share of global manufacturing is the same as that of South Korea (China, meanwhile, accounts for about 31 per cent).

Militarily, the Indian navy is insignificant in the ocean that bears its name, while the navy of the People’s Liberation Army has a stranglehold over all the sea’s choke points: its so-called string of pearls – Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, Kyaukphyu in Myanmar, among others. The bulk of India’s defence budget of $73bn, the fourth-highest in the world, is consumed by salaries and pensions. The rest is spent on a sempiternal weapons binge in which India has imported weapons in large quantities from Russia, its pretentions to Western alignment notwithstanding. This reliance on Moscow has exacted a price: India’s refusal to condemn the invasion of Ukraine in the UN.

India cares little for Western indignation over that reluctance. Where was the Western outrage, its leaders ask, when Chinese and Indian troops fought in the Galwan Valley in 2020? The 24 fatalities were nearly all on the subcontinental side (20 Indian, four Chinese, according to some claims). The circumspect Indian response – a ban on TikTok; tax raids on the Chinese electronics company Xiaomi – revealed the brutal asymmetry between the two powers.

“Neither Washington nor Moscow” went the adage of the non-aligned nations during the Cold War. It is once again India’s cri de coeur. Just as Jawaharlal Nehru – India’s first prime minister and the prime mover of international non-alignment – once did, its current prime minister, Narendra Modi, today plays the US and Russia off against each other, securing capital and technology from one, and arms and a Security Council veto on the disputed region of Kashmir from the other. Other countries are following India’s lead, rejecting, as the Financial Times’s Alec Russell recently put it, the fixed menu of hardened alliances for an à la carte world, choosing between both east and west. Only tangentially, then, can ours be called the Indian century.

India’s calculating multilateralism will come across as intransigence to Western capitals, as it did at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow when, along with China, India inveigled countries into agreeing to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal. That decision can only have surprised those who pay scant attention to Indian domestic politics. India’s biggest coal producers have been some of Modi’s biggest donors. There was a certain crass candour in Modi’s decision, on the day he took office, to fly to the capital in the billionaire magnate Gautam Adani’s private jet. More nobly, there are up to 15 million coal jobs to be protected in the eastern states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh – India’s rust belt.

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The villages of the countryside, where 909 million, or two in three, Indians live, is often more polluted than the cities on account of crop stubble burning. Since independence, and before, Delhi has been in hock to its upper- and middle-caste gentry, or “kulaks”, as Indian academics call them – the tiny substratum from which most of India’s political class comes.

The kulaks have remade the country in their own image. Vast agricultural subsidies have kept an unprofitable and hidebound agrarian economy afloat, while the countryside has been exempted from taxation. The feeblest attempt to dismantle this can result, as Modi discovered in 2021, in a gentry-orchestrated tractor invasion of the capital. In the end, he caved to the farmers’ protests, as his predecessors did.

Modi has distinguished himself from previous Indian leaders in one sense. He has proved more conservative, more illiberal, and more sanguine about turning India into a country for the Hindu majority alone (who account for four in five of the population). He is more disinhibited in his hatred for Muslims (around one in seven) and Marxists. Temples go up on the ruins of flattened mosques, and stadium-sized holding pens are knocked together to house notional Muslim illegals. Attacks on minorities – inner-city Muslims, tribal Christians – go unpunished. Interfaith marriages are broken up by mobs of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Secular liberals are derided as “sickular libtards”, journalists as “presstitutes”.

Opposition figures waste away in jail. Modi’s gloss on the choice before voters – “Modi the kaamdar” (workaholic) of “Rahul [Gandhi] the naamdar” (nepo baby) – rings true to most Indians. Led by Gandhi, heir to the dynasty that has ruled India for much of its postcolonial history, 26 political parties have cobbled together an alliance to oust Modi, but with an approval rating of 77 per cent, the prime minister is the world’s most popular leader.

Everywhere, party membership is plummeting, except in India. The BJP, which Modi leads, has 180 million card-carrying members. The few enclaves of enlightened resistance – the judiciary, press, universities, civil society – are reeling from government cuts and police oppression. Money has however been found for Modi’s Central Vista project: the plan to build a new house of parliament. The parliament of old is to be turned into a Museum of Democracy. (Rumours that Modi is renaming the country, sparked this week by an official in the president’s office sending a letter to G20 leaders to that effect, are overblown.)

At the age of 72, Modi is rising. But is India? The middle class is smaller than you might think. Multinationals dream of Indian yuppies consuming their products, but only 84 million (out of an estimated population of 1.4 billion) Indians earn more than $10 a day. A third of the country’s workforce is made up of footloose labourers, casually employed on farms and construction sites far removed from their homes. The female labour participation rate stands at less than a quarter.

The country’s wealth is no longer flowing outwards, to a distant empire, but rather upwards to billionaires. At the G20 summit this weekend, Modi will no doubt remind his audience that India is the fifth-largest economy in the world. For most Indians, however, another statistic appears more relevant: in per capita terms, India ranks 139th.

[See also: Churchill and the quest for greatness]

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