World

India at 70: The Asian Tiger Rising

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in July. (Reuters photo: Wolfgang Rattay)
A mix of hope and missed opportunities since achieving independence, it has begun to claim its place on the world stage.

I am a child of two worlds. One is America, where I was born after my parents emigrated here in the late 1960s. The other is India, the land of my ancestors, a land that I am both eternally attached to as well as forever frustrated with. But as I travel to her capital, New Delhi, for the 70th anniversary of her independence, there is much to celebrate in this current, most modern version of India. And as both a partial outsider and a partial citizenof that land, I have some unique views on what modern India means to the greater world.

In the early morning of August 15, 1947, India’s independence signaled the end of the British Raj, the English domination of the Indian subcontinent. In that moment, a large portion of the world’s population immediately birthed the world’s largest democracy, the size and scope of which humanity had never seen. That day, Jawaharlal Nehru rose to his feet to make his most famous speech. “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny,” he declaimed. “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”

India would not, however, be birthed peacefully. Its partition into two separate nations, India and its Muslim sister Pakistan, led to the largest mass migration in human history. An estimated 15 million people moved from one country to the other, as masses feared that the religious majority in each nation would oppress the religious minorities. Bringing about what it was intended to prevent, the migration led to massive widespread violence, resulting in approximately 1 million civilian deaths. The price of independence was a debt paid in lives and blood.

India since achieving independence has been a mixture of tragedy, hope, potential, and missed opportunities. The nation has a level of diversity that is difficult for outsiders to understand, with far more states, religions, and languages than the European continent ever had to suffer. And yet the fledgling democracy somehow endured, through famine, war, and religious turmoil.

India was held back from achieving its potential, both economically and geopolitically, by specific political decisions and policies that, we see in retrospect, were short-sighted. The stain of colonialism has much to do with the nation’s persistent poverty and corruption, but Indian politicians, too, bear much of the blame for the half-century of stagnation after independence. Economically, the socialist model promoted by Nehru dramatically decreased the nation’s ability to capitalize on the ingenuity and intelligence of the indigenous population, while competing Asian powers such as Japan and South Korea raced forward, evolving into modern economic giants. On a geopolitical front, India led the world’s “nonaligned” movement to counter the Cold War behemoths of the United States and the Soviet Union. Though reasonable at the time, that decision always left India on the outside looking in as the major powers determined the course of world events.

But after its youthful indiscretion, India has matured. Liberalization of its economy in the early 1990s followed a path parallel to China’s move toward economic freedom; both movements led to the greatest expansion of the middle class in world history, as over 500 million people moved out of poverty in less than two decades. India today is a nation bursting with hope and opportunity, as its youthful population brims with the possibilities that will be available to them in science, technology, engineering, and manufacturing.

For better or worse, Narendra Modi is willing to take risks that previous Indian leaders shied away from in international affairs.

More recently, India has begun to claim its place among the world’s great powers. Current prime minister Narendra Modi is a loud, clear voice for India’s growing interest in participating on the international stage. In contrast to his predecessors, he has adopted an almost exuberant pro-American position, literally embracing President Donald Trump on a recent visit to the White House. A few months ago, he expressed similar sentiments on a trip to Israel, a country with which India has had a troubled past. For better or worse, Modi is willing to take risks that previous Indian leaders shied away from in international affairs.

Modi and his party, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), have promised to expand and modernize the Indian military, which is essential if India is to project its power throughout the region. India’s navy is rapidly expanding, and its air force is retooling. Threats remain. With Pakistan on one side and China on the other, India’s defense requirements are unlikely to diminish anytime soon. Highlighting those ongoing concerns is a recent border spat with China in India’s northeast, in the remote mountainous region of Doklam, an area over which India has a longstanding dispute with both China and the tiny nation of Bhutan. And with each of the three major powers in the region — India, China, Pakistan —having more than its share of nuclear weapons, the risk of war is not to be taken lightly. No matter how badly India wants to avoid fighting wars in the future, it must be prepared for them if it wishes to keep the peace.

India remains a nation of contrasts. Its middle class has grown rapidly, but it still accounts for one-third of the world’s poor. India graduates more engineers and doctors per year than any nation but also leads the world in the number of illiterates. The country has a booming tech sector, but still half the nation subsists through agriculture. India is one of the most diverse nations on earth, but religious freedom and tolerance remain fragile and problematic. The nation’s GDP has boomed, but wealth disparity has reached new highs, as the nation’s top 1 percent control 58 percent of its total wealth. It remains commonplace to see people chauffeured in a Mercedes-Benz or an Audi on roads they share with people pulling carts with oxen.

Despite its problems, however, India remains upbeat, hopeful, looking forward to greater success and productivity. As they celebrate the 70th year of their country’s independence, Indians have much to be proud of, and much remains for them to improve. The 1.2 billion Indians who make up this evolving power on the Asian subcontinent will certainly have their say on the path the world takes as it moves deeper into the 21st century. The more India succeeds, and involves itself with the greater world, the better for the entire planet.

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