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In my last post I wrote about how the power grid collapse in India affected people who lived through it. Just two days after this crisis I was asked “Can India be seen as being or becoming a potential superpower in the face of the recent blackout and its myriad social and economic issues?”  Am answering this question in this post.

First, what does it mean to be a super-power?

  • Technological excellence?
  • Financial muscle?
  • Huge arsenal of nuclear and other weapons?
  • Sporting excellence? (yes yes the Olympics are on)
  • Ability to bend others to one’s will?

IMO, a superpower is not one that has the ability to harm others but one that has the potential to do (& does) a lot of good.

My short answer to the question is No. Not yet anyway.

Long answer:

India has a long long way to go before she can call herself a superpower.  There are a number of things in her favour:

  • a vibrant civil society that has been around for centuries. The space for this is under threat but that is another discussion.
  • a democratic system of governance, young & flawed but struggling to remain one.
  • reasonable pool of genuinely talented people in almost every field.
  • a very tolerant, inclusive, pluralistic & un-bellicose culture.

There are a number of issues however, that she needs to sort out in her  backyard before she can claim to affect world history.

  • Pull millions out of poverty and ensure that they can lead a life of dignity.
  • Establish and maintain a real rule of law where I need not ‘know’ powerful people or be powerful myself to get justice.
  • Strengthen accountability of politicians and corporations to the citizens.
  • Make space for visionary leadership to emerge.

Most of us Indians get excited by our glorious culture and civilisation. We tend to point to our achievements of the yore and rest on those laurels. Most of the answers on Quora on “what is Indian contribution to the world” talk of ancient history; all perfectly valid but… the problem is that we tend to  gloss over the shortcomings. More tragically we fail to realise that we are not really doing anything to address those. It is here that our delusions of being a world power come from.

The fact is that we are not. In overall geopolitical space, we are quite a small player.  Mostly ignored.

  • None of the permanent members of the UN Security council really care about what we think or what summits we are in (Non Aligned Movement for instance which we stick too though the world has moved on)
  • Most technological achievements have been by Indians working elsewhere.
  • Our military history does not necessarily do us proud.
  • In the non-cricketing sporting world we are not found anywhere.
  • If we are the world’s biggest democracy that is only due to the size of the population.

To be honest, we are conning ourselves if we think that we are already a super power.  We have the potential that comes from above mentioned positives and sheer size (we are a big market) but that is a distant dream. Sadly, I do not see visionary leadership that will take us there, not at present anyway.

Till we are able to resolve our internal inconsistencies, claiming to be superpower is plain silly. The blackout is just symptomatic of the myriad ills that still plague India – nothing more or less.

Finally, it is others who have to say you are powerful; if you say it yourself the world will dismiss it as (in words of Trevanian in Shubumi) the arrogance of an amorous ant who is climbing up a cow’s leg promising her that it will be gentle.


Related reading: The Economist  has an interesting article on the grid collapse.