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Why you really want India to join the US and China as a superpower

Woman in sari
Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
On the way to “India Shining?”
  • Miles Kimball
By Miles Kimball

Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Iraq joined Syria in civil war and Ukraine’s crisis persisted this week. And yet let me argue that this week’s most important geopolitical news is the economic program of India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi.

Any increase in the chances for a full-scale supply-side transformation of India’s economy is cause to cheer for many reasons. First and foremost, faster economic growth in India would lift hundreds of millions of people out of dire poverty. But its geopolitical significance should not be underestimated. India is the only nation that rivals China in its population–and is on track to surpass China’s population. As I wrote in a previous Quartz piece, “Benjamin Franklin’s strategy to make the US a superpower worked once, why not try it again?”:

The reason China’s economic rise matters for US grand strategy is that China has a much larger population than the United States. … if China has 1/4 the per capita GDP, but four times as many people, its total GDP will be the same size. …  Power corrupts. So … it should surprise no one that the US has done some bad things as a superpower. Yet I am convinced that the combination of Chinese nationalism and “Communist” oligarchy—or the combination of Chinese nationalism with some tumultuous future political transition in China—would lead a dominant China to behave much worse than the US has.

I believe a future in which India joins China and the US as a superpower would be a safer world than one in which China and the United States are the only superpowers. News of Chinese saber-rattling over territorial disputes has become a commonplace in the last few years. Here is a recent example. And the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre is a reminder of the ugliness of China’s politics now and the tough road China has ahead even in the best-case scenario in which it does become more democratic.

Narendra Modi’s own past is a reminder that India has its own political ugliness. He is the only person to ever have been denied a US visa based on a law designed to punish foreign officials for “severe violations of religious freedom,” since as the head of the Indian state of Gujarat, he failed to stop a Hindu vs. Muslim riot that left more than 1,000 people dead.

Yet, India has been a functioning democracy since 1950, with genuine handoffs of power between different political parties since 1977. And both the religious tensions Modi fatally mishandled and the welfare state he now challenges point to the orientation of Indian politics primarily toward domestic issues, rather than territorial disputes with neighboring countries. What ideological gap exists between the Indian electorate and the US electorate would be narrowed further if further economic liberalization in India is successful. So I do not worry about what India might do as a future superpower the way I worry about what China might do.

What does India’s new government plan to do to make the Indian economy as big as possible, as fast as possible? One key element of the policy address by India’s president Pranab Mukherjee earlier this week, reflecting the prime minister’s agenda, is to make making agricultural markets more competitive, so that farmers can get a better price for their crops. The Wall Street Journal explains:

Subsidies and make-work schemes discourage farmers from concentrating on maximizing yields. Under the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee Act, they are required to sell produce to monopolistic middlemen. As a result, much of India’s harvest rots before it gets to consumers, further driving up food prices.

The policy address outlines the rest of Modi’s agenda:

  1. “Minimum government, maximum governance;”
  2. “basic infrastructure such as roads, shelter, power and drinking water” in rural areas;
  3. helping farmers to farm better in order to raise yields;
  4. pursuing irrigation projects;
  5. more use of massively open online courses (MOOCs) for education with the most bang for the buck;
  6. toilets for everyone;
  7. garbage collection;
  8. making sure girls receive an education and are protected from violence;
  9. encouraging groups of states within India to cooperate on economic development;
  10. combating corruption with “transparent systems and timebound delivery of government services;”
  11. trying to eliminate “obsolete laws, regulations, administrative structures and practices;”
  12. digitization of government records;
  13. “Wi-Fi zones in critical public areas” and broad-band in every village;
  14. social media as a way of getting feedback about how government is doing;
  15. “rationalisation and simplification of the tax regime to make it non-adversarial and conducive to investment, enterprise and growth” including reducing taxation of saving and investment by shifting toward a value added tax;
  16. reducing red tape to “enhance the ease of doing business;”
  17. providing workers with “access to modern financial services;”
  18. creating “dedicated freight corridors and industrial corridors” as attractive destinations for investment;
  19. more airports and upgraded seaports;
  20. 100 newly developed cities;
  21. allowing more foreign investment in making military equipment to make this sector more efficient.

There is always a big gap between government promises and government performance. But this list of initiatives is remarkable for what it doesn’t emphasize. There is not much in the way of direct handouts. By contrast, I learned at a “Cashless Society” workshop, sponsored by New York University’s Urbanization Project, that under the previous Indian government, when government officials came to take the biometric measurements to make it possible to establish identity without needing an identity card, people were happy to cooperate because they see government officials coming to town as a sign that some new handout, subsidy, or goody is on the way.

Most of the things Modi’s government is promising are things that, if delivered, will foster the quantity and quality of private economic activity. To give just two examples, more toilets would not only reduce the number of girls who get raped while going out to the fields to relieve themselves, it would save those girls a lot of time every day that they could devote to their schoolwork. And pushing the educational system heavily in the direction of massively open online courses could speed India toward the kind of low-cost, effective education that ace management guru Clay Christensen and his coauthors predict is the future of education everywhere in the world.

The policy address by the new Indian government is also relatively sophisticated in realizing the obstacles to rolling out new policies. It recognizes that, as a practical matter, many things that need to be done for economic development need to be done at the level of Indian states or groups of Indian states, rather than at the national level. If some states are more willing to work with the national government to foster economic development than others, those states can move ahead faster, and hopefully at some point, citizens of the remaining states will insist on policies like the successful policies of neighboring states.

In a previous election, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began using the slogan “India Shining.” If the new Indian government is able to implement even half of its policy agenda, and subsequent Indian governments continue to push further along the road of supply-side improvement, it won’t be long before “India Shining” is no longer just a slogan. It will be an accurate description of the world’s newest superpower.

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