The West needs to get real about India
5 Jul 2023|

Lately, the West—particularly the United States—has been wooing India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the bling of a monied Indian wedding.

Last month, Modi was US President Joe Biden’s guest for a full state visit—of which there are usually only a couple year. Modi also addressed Congress for a second time. In so doing, he was among a chosen few—of whom Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela have been the most notable.

Earlier, when in New Delhi in April, Biden’s commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, included in a paean to Modi words such as ‘unbelievable’, ‘indescribable’ and ‘visionary’.

Kurt Campbell—the US National Security Council’s most senior figure on Asia—reportedly routinely describes the US–India relationship, without caveats, as America’s most important. This will be news to Japan, the UK and others.

Modi was a guest at the G7 meeting in Hiroshima in May. He then visited Australia. He has been invited by President Emmanuel Macron to be France’s guest for Bastille Day. The leaders of Italy, Germany and Australia—among others—have all visited India this year.

Since India became independent, Western dealings with India have had their fits and starts. However, the courtship gathered pace with the so-called nuclear deal concluded between the US and India in 2008, under which the Americans agreed to assist India’s civil nuclear development and to sell the deal internationally—despite the impediment that India was not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The deal was a turning point in the US–India security relationship and boosted India’s growing status as a major power. A stimulus for the deal was concern in both countries about the rise of China.

In the past few years, India’s attraction for the West has increased because of its size and wealth. It is now the most populous nation globally, and in purchasing power parity terms has the world’s third highest GDP. Its attraction has grown as concerns about China have multiplied.

That said, there are three reasons why the West might want to reflect on the ardour of its courtship of India.

The first is that India’s economic promise—particularly as an eventual rival to China—is overblown.

Doubts about the extent of India’s promise have been around for a couple of decades—in fact, ever since some commentators started suggesting that India would one day outstrip China.

These doubts were cogently expressed by Harvard academic Graham Allison in a recent essay in Foreign Policy. Allison, inter alia, suggested that we need to reflect on several ‘inconvenient truths’:

  • We have been wrong in the past about the pace of the rise of India—namely in the early 1990s and the middle of the first decade of this century.
  • India’s economy is much smaller than China’s—and the gap has increased, not decreased. In the early 2000s, China’s GDP was two to three times as large as India’s. It is now roughly five times as large.
  • India has been falling behind in the development of science and technology to power economic growth. China spends 2% of GDP on research and development, compared with India’s 0.7%. On artificial intelligence, the figures are startling. For example, China holds 65% of AI patents, while India holds just 3%.
  • China’s workforce is more productive than India’s. The quality of their respective workforces is affected by poverty and nutrition levels. As one example, according to the 2022 UN State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, 16.3% of India’s population was undernourished in 2019–2021 compared with less than 2.5% of China’s population.

The second argument is that India’s worldview is quite different to that of most Western countries.

India rightly sees itself as a force in international affairs. It aspires to be a powerful pole in a multipolar world. It adheres to a doctrine of strategic autonomy. It is guided by what it thinks is best for India, not by alliances or what others want of it.

India’s China-driven strategic congruence with the US is not the same as a quasi-alliance relationship. India doesn’t operate within a framework of mutual obligation. It doesn’t expect others to come to its aid and it won’t join someone else’s war.

In a recent Foreign Affairs article entitled ‘America’s bad bet on India’, an American academic of Indian origin, Ashley Tellis, argues that New Delhi would never involve itself in any US confrontation with China that did not threaten its own security.

The Tellis piece has weight because he was a main intellectual force behind the ‘nuclear deal’ concluded in 2008.

Moreover, India will differ radically from the West on some questions. True, as the Ukraine war has progressed, India has put some daylight between itself and Russia. But it declines to impose sanctions on Moscow. Both countries benefit from Russia’s sales of oil to India.

And never a proponent of the Western-inspired liberal international order, India is also a leader of the disparate—but re-energised—global south, effectively the developing world.

The third argument is that the west’s line that its relationship with India is based on shared democratic values does not hold up.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said he saw the long-term trajectory of the US-India relationship as being ‘built on the notion that democracies with shared value systems should be able to work together both to nurture their own democracies internally and to fight for shared values globally’. Come off it, Mr Sullivan!

The problem is that Modi’s government can only lend itself to highly qualified identification with democratic principles.

Elections in India are generally fair, and Modi’s sway is vigorously contested by the main opposition party, by Congress and by regional parties. That’s good.

However, Modi remains an unabashed Hindu supremacist whose political machine largely disregards the aspirations of Muslims and other minorities. It reacts vengefully to criticism and scores badly on most of the international indexes that measure democratic freedoms. To some, India is an illiberal democracy; to others, it’s an electoral autocracy. But, for sure, it is not a liberal democracy.

Western interests dictate that we put grunt into our relationship with India with energy and determination. It is unquestionably an increasingly important country. But we must have realistic expectations of India and deal with as it is, not as we might like it to be. Otherwise, we risk disappointment.