Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Global Power – Book review


HarperCollins, India, 2020, 208pp, hardcover, $21.95  ISBN-13: 978-9353578015 ISBN-10: 9353578019   Author: Aparna Pande


by Arnold Zeitlin    14 November 2020

        Considering Aparna Pande’s approach to making India great,  her brisk survey of the country’s ills might have been better entitled Deconstructing India.

“India has embraced modernity, but only partially,” Pande writes, a lament repeated throughout her book. “…..India’s promise cannot be realized without acknowledging its failures….India could certainly be a global power. But to get there, it would have to deal with its handicaps….Indians spend far greater time dwelling on their past than they do on planning for their future…..”

Pande, who toils in Washington DC for the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute think tank, joins those who wonder why a vast land, with a rich history, a significant geographical position in South Asia, nuclear-armed with a disciplined military, about to become the world’s most populous state with vital resources including a youthful workforce, many of whom are well-educated, does not pull its weight in global politics and economy.

Her complaints range from insisting that too many Indians spent too much time concerned about the fate of cows  (to the detriment of India’s thriving beef export trade), to having too few Indians in the country’s lean diplomatic corps, to an underfunded education system with job creation so poor that candidates with engineer’s degrees compete for jobs as peons in government agencies.

Culturally, “as a society, India has a generally hostile attitude towards the free market,” Pande writes. noting while recent economic growth has reduced poverty, more than 400 million Indians live in extreme or moderate poverty. India remains “the poorest large national economy.”.

She dismisses India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as having a “lower-middle-class, or petite bourgeois base (that)  is, at its core, protectionist and averse to integration in the global economy.” As for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she approvingly quotes those who say he is not a reformer but a Hindu populist with an economic outlook that is “a throwback to India’ inward-looking policies of earlier years.”

“There are strong reasons to be hopeful of India’s future,” Pande is able to conclude,”…..a strong democratic foundation provides the political stability and ability to adapt to changing circumstances….”

But over her discussion of India looms a large, dark shadow of China. She writes:

“A geopolitical rivalry between India and China is inevitable….It is the not-so-peaceful rise of China that lies at the core of what is happening today,….China’s GDP is four times India’s….their population is approximately the same and China’s military budget is three times India’s.

“It’s ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative, and Belt and Road Initiative provides two examples of policies guided by long-term strategic plans; India has traditionally not invested in this”

Little escapes comparison:

“For all the focus on improving the lives of India’s farmers,” Pande writes, “the country has so far achieved only one-third the agricultural productivity of China.”

“India as only three or four garment makers whose turnover exceeds $100 billion, and none of them have the economies of scale as their Chinese counterparts. She notes India’s garment industry manages $14 billion in annual exports; upstart neighbor Bangladesh aims for $36 billion in garment exports for 2020.

Another lesser, but a significant shadow is cast by the United States.

“The Americans….want India to actively check China’s growing influence in Southeast and East Asia,” she writes, “without recognizing its priorities in South and Central Asia…..Thus, the India-US relationship remains tuck in a grey area where the desire for partnership far exceeds operational and functional instruments of collaboration….India….remains reluctant to be a formal American ally….”

And, of course, there is always Pakistan. She takes on that bloody, unending rivalry, from what she deems is Pakistan’s “psychological fear” of Indian influence in Afghanistan to the Modi government’s fantasy that splitting Kashmir geographically will somehow make the issue fade away.

Those and other impediments dim her modest hope of someday making India great.