India: the Emerging Superpower's Past, Present and Future

By Ryan Chung
Published on June 5th, 2021

Before the industrial revolution, the geopolitical centers of the world lay in the subcontinent of India and China. Both had immense populations and both boasted a bustling market which held most of the world’s GDP. After the Industrial Revolution in Europe, both areas became targets for Europe’s exploitation and economic gain. Trading posts were set up all over the coasts of Asia, as Europeans encroached deeper and deeper into both the areas, with China ceding much land to the Russians, French, Germans, British and even the Japanese. India, further subjugated, initially a battleground for multiple colonial powers such as the Portuguese, Dutch, British and French, vied for influence over the vast, lucrative subcontinent. Great Britain eventually prevailed, establishing the British Raj, a conglomerate of many Indian principalities and kingdoms who all were nominally controlled by the British crown. The Raj came to be known as the “Jewel in the crown of the British Empire”. With its extensive resources such as spices, textiles and cotton, and most importantly, near limitless manpower, India boosted Great Britain into superpower status.

The Past

Looking back to the present, it is clear that India is undeniably a regional powerhouse, exerting influence across the Indian Ocean, and to an extent, South Asia. Aside from its abundant natural resources, what made India a local powerhouse, and a potential superpower?

Firstly, let’s talk about the geography of India. India, for all its history, has been isolated and separated from the outside world. To the Southeast and the southwest are the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, composing the Indian Ocean. Before the European’s came from the seas, this provided an impenetrable defense for the Indian kingdoms. To the West are the Arakan mountain ranges, to the North are the Himilayans, and to the West are the Sulaiman mountains. All these mountains and Oceans meant that the subcontinent was able to develop and prosper itself without outside influences, creating a unique “Indian” culture. However, to say India is a culturally homogenous nation would be a grave error. India today alone contains more than two thousand ethnic groups, each with different cultures and traditions, and speaking different languages. India also has 22 official languages, including Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Tamil. Furthermore, India has a population of 1.3 billion, soon to surpass China. This allows India to have a workforce unparalleled in the world. India has an average age of 26.8, compared to China’s 38.4. India has also been called the technology superpower, having access to a low cost, abundant, and most importantly, English speaking workforce. This enables India to have many people in the IT service industry. Turns out once being Britain’s colony does have its perks. India’s large population also allows India to field an impressively large army, a must for a global power. The economy also gains from the large population, with science and technology increasingly gaining a foothold in India, with it being the third nation to found a National Space Agency called ISRO.

Secondly, India is nominally a Republic, giving it a good image in the international community. It is the largest democracy in the world, four times bigger than the US. Its relative success gives it better ties with the largely democratic developed world in Western Europe and North America. These ties permit development and investment in the country, although relatively authoritarian countries such as China also receive investments from Western companies.

The Present

There are certainly facts and evidence to support India’s claim to be a potential superpower. However, there are equally as many points saying otherwise.

Firstly, from an economic standpoint, even though India has impressive growth rates and economic prowess, illiteracy and poverty still plague the country. India had a literacy rate of 73.2 percent in 2011, an unimpressive number which causes 6.7 percent of the population to live in poverty. Poor infrastructure also beleaguers India, as many areas across India, especially the North and South remain unconnected. Even if they are, the roads are in disrepair and in bad condition.

Secondly, even if the average age of India is on their side, other parts of their demographics say otherwise. As mentioned above, India is a culturally heterogeneous country, with thousands of ethnic groups, cultures and traditions, each speaking different languages, and believing in a different religion. Unlike China or the US, with most of their population belonging to one culture, India is a melting pot of cultures. This could serve as a barrier to India’s development, as clashes among the different ethnic and religious groups often cause outrage and disunity among the nation. Most pronounced of all the conflicts is the Muslim and Hindu divide. Even after the Indian partition, many religious minorities continue to live outside their ‘designated’ countries, believing their ties to the land their families have lived upon for hundreds of years too important to leave behind. This causes tensions between the groups, resulting in violence in the country, hurting unity and tolerance. Other religious groups also have had their share of violence, such as the Sikhs in the area of Punjab. Ethnic divides are also present in the Northeast of India - Assam. During the history of democratic India, the native Assamese have been attacking and inciting violence against the non-natives of the region, including some Hindu-speaking peoples of central India. Violence by the native Assamese has killed more than 4 thousand people, and had 2 hundred thousand people subjected to homelessness. If India is to continue to be a powerhouse, it must overcome these religious, ethnic and cultural divides plaguing the country.

Thirdly, the cultural divides also affect the political unity of the government. India, although a republic, governs as a federation like the US more than a centralized country. Different states among the country govern as individual principalities like the times when Britain still held the reins of India. The autonomy granted to many states hurts the entire country in governing and instituting reforms, as the central authority just does not have the power to force these local governments into establishing change. This tug of war with the central government and the local governments has always been a hallmark of India. The lack of authority from the capital basically handed the outsiders control of India with the people of the Indian subcontinent divided amongst themselves rather than the outsiders. The Mughal Empire and the British Empire respectively used the animosity between different groups in India to their full advantage, therefore coining the term “Divide and conquer”. They fermented disunity within the Indians, propped up alliances and coalitions with some Indian states to conquer others, sowed discord between cultural groups, and finally subjugated them in the end. The British mostly used Indians to govern the colonial government! This problem persists today. If New Delhi is unable to rein in the power of local state governments, it will be unable to pass reforms to strengthen its country.

Finally, even though India has strong partnerships in Europe and in America, it has few friends locally. Pakistan and India are long time rivals, both having waged many wars against each other. Relations with Bangladesh are average; however, China is actively trying to improve relations with Bangladesh, agreeing to help Bangladesh to build a nuclear power plant. If Bangladesh sides with China in the future, it poses an existential threat to India’s security, as China and Bangladesh combined could cut off the Northeastern parts of India with the rest through the Siliguri Corridor. Relations with China are icy at best, and confrontational at worst. Recently, India and China have clashed over the Galwan Valley, further increasing tension between two major powers.

The Future

With many challenges posed to India in the 21st century, it remains to be seen whether India will ascend to global power status. With many challenges such as a culturally fractured nation, a decentralized government, and an isolated diplomatic policy, it must put a hold on many of the problems facing India or it will revert into a regional power.

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