There is growing talk of India becoming a great power of a super-power, not only among Indians, but also among foreigners in the capitals of the world. Every day there is a story in the Western press which refers to India as a future ‘great power’. This must sound sweet to a country that was widely regarded as 20th century’s great disappointment. Our disappointment arose primarily from our poor economic performance, but thanks to the reforms India’s position has changed and India is today one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

The question is what is a ‘super-power’? I believe that military might is not sufficient for greatness. America was a super power in the 1970s; yet it lost to a very poor nation, Vietnam. Soviet Union, another great power then, stumbled against an even poorer country, Afghanistan. Neither are nuclear weapons essential for national greatness. For then Pakistan would also be great. Nor is a permanent seat on the UN Security Council a measure of greatness.

I believe that a successful nation has three attributes: politically, it is stable, free, and democratic with human rights and a rule of law; economically, it is prosperous and reasonably equitable; and socially, it is peaceful, cohesive, and inclusive—it strives towards reducing hierarchy and increasing equality of opportunity. It is rare to find such a nation. Western democracies are free and prosperous but their societies are disintegrating. The nations in the East are prosperous and socially cohesive but they are mostly un-free under authoritarian political regimes. Where does India stand?

For decades, India scored high as a political democracy, middling as a society, and poorly as an economy. After the 1990s, however, its economy was unshackled by liberalization, its growth rate climbed up and prosperity began to spread. In the first decade of 21st century, growth accelerated to make it the world’s second fastest growing economy, and the world began to speak about ‘the rise of India’.

Socially too, there have been considerable gains in the past two decades. Dalits and other back ward castes have continued to rise both through the ballot box and a rising economy. The proud symbol of their ascent is Mayavati who became the chief minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh. A middle class is now developing among Dalits and other backward castes, aided partially by the Mandal reforms. In the tribal areas, however, incidents of Maoist violence continued to shatter the peace in the first decade of the 21st century.

Politically, however, cracks have appeared in all major institutions and the Indian state has begun to decay. Governance and corruption are a serious problem. Although elections have become fairer thanks to the Election Commission, and democracy has continued its slow march down to the village, after the 73rd amendment to the Constitution, corruption became pervasive. The state’s inability to deliver the most basic services which people expect from their government made one observer, Lant Pritchett, call India a ‘flailing state’. It is a bizarre spectacle--in the midst of a booming private economy, Indians despair over the simplest public goods that people elsewhere take for granted. The problem is not with democracy, but with an inability to reform the fraying institutions of governance—the police, judiciary, and the bureaucracy.

It is a mistake to believe that liberalization leads to a weak state. On the contrary, economic reforms require a strong state. This does not mean an oppressive state; it means an ‘effective’ state. It is ‘strong’ in the sense that it enforces robustly and fairly the rule of law, contracts and rights guaranteed in the Constitution, Such a state has independent regulators who are tough on corruption and ensure that no one is above the law.

The other mistake is to think that the Indian state has weakened in the past two decades primarily because of coalition politics and ‘weak prime ministers’. The truth is that India has always had a weak state, but it had a strong society. India’s history is of political disunity with constant struggles between kingdoms. China has always had a strong state and a weak society, and its history is that of strong empires. Not surprisingly, after Independence in 1947, India became a chaotic democracy. Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish Nobel prize winner, who studied India in the late 1950s and 1960s, called it a ‘soft state’. In the 21st century, consistent with the past, India is rising from below towards a democratic and market-based future, almost despite the state. It is quite unlike China whose success has been scripted from above by an amazing, technocratic state that has built incredible infrastructure. The Anna Hazare movement against corruption in 2011 is the latest example of a historically weak state colliding with a strong society. The lesson from India’s history is that a successful nation needs a strong state and a strong society.

I think ultimately, India’s greatness lies in its self reliant and resilient people. We are able to pull ourselves up by our shoe laces and succeed even when the state fails us at every turn. When teachers and doctors don’t show up in government primary schools and health centres, we don’t complain. We just open up cheap private schools and clinics in our slums, and get on with it. We have learned to fight against competitors and get around bureaucrats.

This makes us a tough, entrepreneurial, and independent people. The greatness of a nation lies in the minds of its people.  Fortunately, we are a young nation and the young Indian’s mind is now decolonised and liberated. You only have to look into Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s fearless eyes to see this. Our democracy has released energy in the young. Our economic success is all the more remarkable because it has been democratically produced. In contrast to these positive features, the shocking state of our governance tells us how far we are from being a truly great nation. We will only be able to call ourselves a great nation when every Indian has access to a good school and a good health clinic. This will happen when government realizes that it doesn’t have to run these schools
and clinics, but only needs to provide funds for them. This is the Indian way to greatness for we are not a people who want the government to do everything.