Is India really a superpower?

A recent study challenges the conventional wisdom about the world’s largest democracy

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Sukanto Debnath/Flickr

For all the hype around the unstoppable ascent of the world’s most populous democracy, “India is not a superpower (and may never be),” according to a group of researchers at the London School of Economics, who just penned an interesting new study on the topic.

The paper, of course, isn’t denying India’s rise. After all, the country’s economy expanded fourfold in the last 10 years, lifting millions out of poverty along the way. And if its domestic market weren’t so tied up with rules meant to keep foreigners at bay, Western companies would probably be stepping over each other to win Indian contracts, as they’re doing right now in China.

But an economic miracle isn’t enough to qualify for superpower status, the authors of the report argue. India is still grappling with a number of serious domestic challenges. These include a disruptive Maoist guerrilla faction; the terrible waste of human resources that is the Hindu caste system; and a corrupt and divided political leadership that can’t ever come up with a coherent, grand strategy for anything from developing the economy to rebooting the military.

In the chapter on the economy, Rajeev Sibal, an economics Ph.D. candidate at the LSE, writes that, “without an enhancement of regulatory capacity, increased liberalisation will simply perpetuate corruption and further inequality.” In other words, if India were to swing open the door to global markets right now it would probably wind up like post-Gorbachev Russia. The country, in fact, can’t even lift capital controls, continues Sibal, because even a small uptick in food prices would leave many of the country’s poor without their naan and butter.

In the section on military power, Iskander Rehman, another soon-to-be-Dr. at Science Po, in Paris, reports that India has become the world’s largest weapons importer. But he goes on to argue that the civilian government’s deep-seated distrust of all things military–something it inherited from Nehru–is impeding a true Indian military rise.

The paper’s list of why-nots goes on, but there’s no mention of an important factor, one that is unquestionably skewed in India’s favour and will, by contrast, bog down China: demography.  It’s an old prediction that the People’s Republic’s strict population controls–which started well before the one-child policy of 1979–will soon get in the way of its economic growth.

“A high ratio of working-age people to dependents contributed significantly to China’s economic growth in the past two decades, but China’s proportion of working-age people is at its peak and will soon begin to decline,” reads a recent paper on the topic by the RAND Corporation. Also, the country’s pension system covers only a small fraction of the population and there aren’t nearly enough retirement homes, so China’s elders will have to dip into their savings and rely on their children for support to a much greater extent than seniors in the West do. That, in turn, will reduce the flow of private capital that currently goes into investments and put a strain on the labour force, as younger workers struggle to take care of their elders.

India doesn’t have this problem. Despite its government’s zealous efforts to curb births–remember the forced vasectomies of the 1970s in A Fine Balance?–the fertility rate never took a dive there as it did in China. In 2010 India’s working-age population stood at 65 per cent, and continues to expand.

Of course, there are some factors that tame China’s population disadvantage compared to India, the RAND paper notes.Twice as many working-age women have joined the labour market in the People’s Republic, and both men and women there tend to be better educated there. Still, demography is a Sword of Damocles hanging over the Communist Party of China.

But even if one disregards the population issue, the argument that India’s domestic headaches will keep it from soon reaching its superpower potential remains unconvincing. “Those are obstacles that other nations have experienced during their concomitant rise on the world stage,” Nilanthi Samaranayake, an analyst at Center for Naval Analyses, told me in an quick email exchange about the LSE paper. She added: “I see little reason for India to be held back strategically while it addresses the internal challenges that all nations have.”