India can matter by just being there, as a marketplace, as a contested ground, a resource, or a platform. Indeed, as it did during colonial times. This breeds a survival mentality that, at best, can graduate to a transactional one. But India can also matter through the power of its ideas and actions as an engine of the global economy, a hub of innovation, or a democracy that delivers.
That is the course of destiny, and its ambitious path requires deep determination and strong perseverance. The debates within our society will decide which road is finally taken. As a nation, choices are becoming increasingly stark. The progress of the last decade points to hope and optimism, while the old order highlights our insecurities and underlines the divides.
Indians, of course, must be conscious that the world has a lot riding on our decisions. Those who wish us well will endeavor to cooperate. Others who see our rise less favorably will obstruct, if not do worse. Either way, we must be prepared for those who will participate in our discourse, even intervene in pursuit of their interests. As discussed earlier, it is vital that we do not open ourselves to the external shaping of our prospects. India certainly matters to its own people, and for that very reason, we must recall from history why our future must not be decided by those outside.
The place that India has long occupied in global thinking is manifest in the obsessive search for trade routes to it. They may have initially taken European explorers to the American continent. But when the explorers finally reached India by sea, even more significant consequences unfolded. Using it as an effective base, Europe was able to thereafter dominate the rest of Asia. In fact, even China’s fate in the nineteenth century was very much shaped by the outcomes in India.
Not surprisingly, this centrality of India worked the other way around as well. Its independence set in motion a larger decolonization process that became the basis for the contemporary global order. Decades later, India’s economic progress contributes to a rebalancing and multipolarity that is still unfolding. These may be some illustrations of an argument on why India matters. Pondering over its past importance certainly helps to gauge its future relevance.
Part of why India counts is obvious. For a start, it represents a sixth of humanity. So, its successes and shortcomings have clear global connotations. But for Partition, India, and not China, would have been the largest society in living memory. The case for India is, however, more than just one of demography. For it is among the few civilizational states that has survived the ravages of history. Such polities are distinguished by a different level of culture and heritage, with accompanying attitudes and mindset as well. They take the long view, especially in regard to global issues. Many of their goals and objectives also build on traditions that are not readily shared by contemporary peers. Simply put, there is not only a scale and history but an exceptionalism about India that makes it matter.
Societies can be relevant as a playing field for others or they can be players by themselves. The colonial era with its ruthless extractive culture presented that sharp choice in the last few centuries. You were either a victim or an assailant; there was no middle ground. However, the progress of contemporary times has provided the basis for change beyond that binary. It is not merely a platitude to state that this is now an era of greater cooperation.
New activities and energies emerged from the freedom of nations to be taken forward by comparative advantage. In due course, their political importance increased in world affairs. In doing so, countries transcended their earlier predicament and became factors of influence. Large ones, in particular, regained their natural weight and salience in the calculations of others. Their choices and actions started to determine not only their own prospects but also those of others. This could be from a set of capabilities, a reservoir of resources, the quality of talent, the importance of location or even national will and leadership.
It is the entirety of this matrix that is shaping the rise of India. As our nation completes 75 years of independence, Indians should examine their prospects against a global context that has been equally transformational. The world undoubtedly offers vastly more opportunities, but that is also embedded with new responsibilities. India matters because these cannot be separated, and it counts on both scores.
While size and population are obvious indices of a nation’s potential, neither is a self-fulfilling criterion by itself. Our own past history is proof of that assertion. There are others, too, whose political standing has been below par despite these attributes. And, in contrast, there are much smaller nations that have punched way above their weight. The core of global rebalancing has been the revival of China, India and some others in the Global South that have made their long-standing characteristics count more through national revival. A key factor is the pace and nature of development, including the enhancement of human resource quality.
In this respect, recent happenings are a source of hope for India. There is, after 2014, a holistic commitment to achieving social development goals through dedicated campaigns covering every segment. They include better health and immunization, reducing gender gaps, expanding educational access and coverage, promoting skills to fostering talent and innovation, making it easier to do business and creating greater employment opportunities.
The resulting inclusive growth will naturally contribute to strengthening capabilities and expanding the marketplace. But just as notable will be its impact on the global workplace, and this really matters for the world.
(Edited excerpts from ‘Why Bharat Matters’ by Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar, with permission from Rupa Publications.)
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