Originally Published 2004-03-12 11:48:56 Published on Mar 12, 2004
George Perkovich is of the view that India is not a major power today though it definitely enjoys a substantial measure of autonomy. The essence of his argument can be summarised as follows:
A flawed view
(This is an analysis of an article "Is India a Major Power" written by George Perkovich in The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2003-04)


George Perkovich is of the view that India is not a major power today though it definitely enjoys a substantial measure of autonomy. The essence of his argument can be summarised as follows:

"India today lacks great power in that, for the most part, it cannot make other important states comply with Indian demands. Nor can India obtain all that it desires in the international arena. It cannot compel or persuade technology suppliers to ignore nonproliferation strictures and supply new power reactors to the country, nor can it alone win preferred trade terms in World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations. India cannot persuade others to isolate Pakistan and probably cannot gain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in the foreseeable future. Yet, India does have the capacity to resist most if not all demands placed upon it by other states, including the recognized major powers."

In support of his argument, the author has examined India's socio-economic indicators, international trade, state capacity and political cohesion, military-security indicators and strategic diplomacy and drawn broad conclusions. These are given in succeeding paragraphs along with a critique of the article.

Major Indicators

Socio-economic Indicators

Despite an average growth rate of 5.9 per cent per annum since 1992-93, India's per capita GDP of US $2,540 in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) is rather low compared with China's $4,600 and Brazil's $7,600. On the UN Human Development Index (HDI), India ranks 113 out of 162 countries. Government deficit is running at a "debilitating" 10 per cent of the GDP since 1998. Insufficient funds are being deployed for investment in primary education, health and infrastructure. However, India is a world class player in three important sectors of the global economy: information technology, bio-technology and space.

International Trade    India continues to have less than one percent share in world trade in goods and services. This impedes India's international power as a major player only a few Indian corporations have become global leaders. However, India's long-term economic prospects are greater than those of China and are more sustainable as India is a democracy.

State Capacity and Political Cohesion    India's political system has shown mixed results. Its "forward direction has been handicapped by communal violence, secessionism, corruption and myriad conflicting interests." The author points out that the real goal in politics appears to be "less to stimulate economic growth… than to acquire government jobs and to distribute state resources to allies." He criticises the handling of the communal conflagration in Gujarat in early 2003 and states that such incidents detract from India's effort to generate resources to become a major global power. It is in India's interest for the government to harness and canelise the nation's creative energies towards greater social cohesion, which is a prerequisite for rapid economic development.

Military-Security Indicators

The author highlights India's precarious security situation in both the internal and external arenas and brings out that India's security calculus is essentially defensive and that the country has no territorial ambitions. He sees the signing of $4 billion worth of contracts with Russia for the acquisition of defence equipment as a desire to "manifest muscle" and as the legacy of the Kargil conflict of 1999 as well as the major terrorist attacks that followed. He discounts the ability of nuclear weapons to propel a country to great power status and points out that international fears of a nuclear holocaust in South Asia are justified because Kashmir continues to be a potential flashpoint. Perkovich looks at India's improving relations with China as being beneficial to India as well as to China.

Strategic Diplomacy

Perkovich sees India's emerging world view and new found confidence as flowing out of the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Of late, India has been wisely engaging in quiet diplomacy rather than public posturing. Indian public opinion sees the Bush administration as "arrogant, unilateral and militaristic" and finds the US government's coddling of Pakistani terrorism hypocritical. India did well to team up with China and Brazil in the WTO negotiations in September 2003 to impress upon the developed countries to better accommodate the interests of the developing countries. The author sees India's ambivalence in furthering international non-proliferation regimes as an indicator of India's conflicting interests. He is of the view that India's quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council will continue to be thwarted in the near future, particularly by China that sees India as its "greatest long-term rival for power status in Asia."


George Perkovich has done a reasonable job of identifying the traditional indicators of international power and placing India's present status as an international player in perspective. However, his argument has several weaknesses and is flawed. The following issues merit consideration:

During the 1960s, Selig Harrison had hypothesised that India was likely to disintegrate as a nation state. Around the same time, John K. Galbraith had characterised India as a "functioning anarchy". While the pace of nation building has definitely been slow, India has not only survived as a nation-state but also prospered far beyond common expectations.

The traditional indicators of great power status have often been questioned and are in many respects patently flawed. For example, economic powerhouses like Germany and Japan do not necessarily count as great powers.

The Chinese always talk of "comprehensive national power" that is based on a large number of indicators, including a nation's population.

Regardless of economic development and globalisation, for many decades ahead, military power will remain the foremost indicator of great power status. The mere possession of nuclear weapons is not adequate to propel a nation into the highest orbit, otherwise Israel and Pakistan would also count as great powers. A nation's conventional military strength also counts. In this respect, India enjoys immense standing in the world today.

However, it must be appreciated that military power by itself does not guarantee a nation's stability and economic progress. The break up of the erstwhile Soviet Union is a case in point. Military power must necessarily be accompanied by economic progress, political stability and social cohesion for a nation to be termed great.

A nation's ability to influence events and promote its own national interests must certainly be taken into account. While India has not yet acquired worldwide influence, its ability to promote its interests in its regional neighbourhood is not in doubt. Pakistan is the only stumbling block for India in Southern Asia but it is gradually coming around to the view that it would be of greater benefit to itself to live in peace with India rather than promote perpetual conflict. Gradually, India's reach and influence will extend to Southeast Asia and Central Asia as well.

India's quest for a seat on the UN Security Council has often been misconstrued as an effort to gain a backdoor entry to world power status. Security Council reform is long overdue as it does not reflect post-Cold War realities and is heavily skewed in favour of Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance. Many regions of the world are completely unrepresented. For India it is a genuine aspiration that needs to be fulfilled.

The author's analysis of social cohesion within India and his conclusion that the attempt of the proponents of Hindutva to impose "a dominant character and direction in India politics" will generate tensions in India's cohesion and stability, have no basis in fact. Strong-arm religious advocacy is an unfortunate fallout of vote bank-based electoral politics and is far removed from the realities of decision making. While it is somewhat of a drag on efforts at nation building and consolidation, it is unlikely to damage India's deeply pluralistic character and secular society.


By relying on traditional indicators of great power status, George Perkovich has completely ignored the successful transition that India has made from colonisation to the world's largest democracy that is not only gradually growing and inexorably rising to its full potential, but actually thriving. India can only be described as an unstoppable juggernaut, well on its way to finding its place in the sun.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Observer Research Foundation.
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