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Answer by Igor Markov, EECS professor at Michigan, currently at Google:
This is possible but not at all easy. For the sake of long-term analysis, let's neglect some of India's current weaknesses that may get resolved in 10-20 years and focus on fundamentals and their manifestations.
India's economy is projected to reach the No. 3 spot by 2020 (by at least some analysts and metrics; it's already there by purchasing power parity), surpassing Japan, and trailing only China (No. 1) and the U.S. (No. 2). In view of China's recent economic troubles and suspicious accounting, China's ascent is in doubt, but India's upward path seems more certain (say, by 2030), as its excesses have been smaller so far. Of course, India's economy must become more robust and structurally sound, while the legal system must strengthen as well, and corruption must be addressed. Going forward, India has huge potential due to its large population, a longstanding tradition of democracy and stable government system with non-violent transitions, convenient location for trade, proximity to major oil exporters, decent standing in the world, a large English-speaking population, massive engineering education that is gradually improving in quality, and a system of research and development institutions.
India's current weakness is limited global reach. In particular, the BRICs group is looking less and less promising due to significant divergence between its members (some are in deep recession, some need oil to be expensive, while others prefer cheap oil, etc). However, the G-20 has been increasingly relevant. Should India and China reach the status of developed economies (perhaps in 20 years), they may be added to the G-7 forum. In general, faster development of the world economy should help developing countries to catch up, but in a slower world economy the developed countries will preserve their lead.
India's military is ranked No. 4 in 2015 by Global Firepower after the U.S., Russia, and China, and followed by the U.K. While this is unlikely to change by 2020, I expect Russia to drop out from the top three in 10-20 years, due to the effects of protracted financial crisis, economic stagnation, and deteriorating demographics. In contrast, both India and the U.K. are primed to significantly increase their military strength by 2025. With two new supercarriers, the U.K. will have a stronger navy (currently, U.K.'s navy is considered slightly weaker than India’s). The recently announced massive new purchase program for strike aircraft can make the U.K. air force stronger as well (it is currently judged weaker than India's and is a lot smaller). India's initial bet on Russian fifth-generation fighters (PAK FA) has gone sour. The supersonic cruise missile Brahmos jointly developed by India and Russia isn't deployed by Russia for some reason (despite its availability) and does not have direct analogues in NATO countries, while NATO can technically develop one. This raises doubts about the operational effectiveness of this primarily anti-ship missile.
Even today, India cannot project power away from its borders nearly as efficiently as the U.K. can (due to the U.K.'s bases and close defense relations with NATO). And India has no military alliences like NATO and the Five Eyes. India is likely to remain the No. 4 military power through 2030, but if Russia is replaced by the U.K. in the top three, this can increase India's significance because the U.K. is a part of the already strong NATO. It's really hard to guess the military developments by 2050, but the NATO militaries will clearly become increasingly unmanned, negating population handicaps and leveraging new technology, while other countries are likely to lag behind. The extent of this trend will be determined by specific technology developments and economic health of the countries involved.
India has been uninvolved in many international conflicts and also has relatively little political influence on other countries (despite being the third largest contributor to U.N. peacekeeping forces worldwide). This may start changing as India's economy and international trade grow. The big diplomatic prize would be an enhanced status in the U.N. India is arguing for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council, but any Security Council reform seems impossible in the next five years. Some changes may become realistic by 2025, especially after major political upheavals that some predict for this time frame. A U.N. reform is looking more likely by 2050, especially if 20 years pass without major conflicts. Here, the key for India is to wisely navigate between other world powers, make good bets, and avoid major pitfalls while contributing to the world peace in essential and unique ways. The current conflict with Pakistan is a serious shackle, as it confines India to the status of a regional power and limits India's support among Muslim nations. (India's collaboration with Israel on defense matters is another issue for Muslim nations.)
I'd also like to postulate that there can be at most three global superpowers on this planet (with more comparable powers, each will hold too little sway to count as a superpower). There is little doubt that the U.S. will remain a superpower, even if China's economy becomes larger. As of 2025, the EU will likely become the second global superpower, and some may argue that it already is. (The EU economy is currently larger than the U.S. economy, and the EU definitely has global political, diplomatic, and economy-related reach while enjoying two seats on the Security Council.)
It is not clear if there will be a third superpower, especially since the U.S. and the EU are so tightly allied in most regards. But the main candidates are China and India (Russia's economy is way too small, and its global reach has significantly shrunk in 2014-15 due to political adventurism and bad bets, while the overall trajectory remains negative). Both China and India have limited global reach today, and both are trying to reach the status of developed economies. Both need to provide better education to their citizens, improve their legal and enforcement systems, and cut down corruption. Both have questionable human-rights records, although India seems in a better shape. Both have thorny relations with some of their neighbors that are unlikely to get resolved. China has a head start on the economy size, while India has a head start on the political system. In the short term, economy is more tangible, but in the long term the political system is at least as important (as this is critical to fixing the legal system, setting up effective law enforcement, and rooting out corruption).
So, will China or India be the third superpower? Or neither?
Distinctive Profile of a Developed India
Let me tell you what an economically developed India should look like by 2020:
1. A nation where the rural-urban divide has been reduced to a thin line.
2. A nation where there is an equitable distribution of, and adequate access to, energy and quality water.
3. A nation where agriculture, industry and the service sector work together in symphony.
4. A nation where education with a good value system is not denied to any meritorious candidates because of societal or economic discrimination.
5. A nation which is the best destination for the most talented scholars, scientists, and investors from around the world.
6. A nation where the best of healthcare is available to all.
7. A nation where governance is responsive, transparent and corruption-free.
8. A nation where poverty has been totally eradicated, illiteracy removed, crime against women and children is absent, and no one in the society feels alienated.
9. A nation that is prosperous, healthy, secure, devoid of terrorism, peaceful and happy, and continues on a sustainable growth path.
10. A nation that is one of the best places to live in and is proud of its leadership.
Integrated Action for a Developed India
In order to realize this distinctive profile, we have to transform India in five areas where India has core competence:
1. Agriculture and food processing
2. Education and healthcare
3. Information and communication technology
4. Infrastructure development, which includes reliable and quality electric power, surface transport and infrastructure for all parts of the country including rural and urban areas under PURA
5. Self-reliance in critical technologies.
Challenges involved in realizing the vision
The India Vision 2020 document was prepared at the time of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. It was given to his successor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who announced in Parliament as well as in one of his Independence Day addresses that India will become an economically developed nation by 2020. At a governors’ conference during my presidency, Manmohan Singh announced that his government, too, will carry forward the task of economically developing the nation.
As any national vision takes at least fifteen years for its realization, a minimum of three democratically elected governments have to work on it. National missions cannot be party agenda, but they can be part of their election manifestos. The methodology of the party in power may be different from that of its predecessor, but the vision would be supreme. For this reason, it has to cut across party lines and be approved by Parliament to ensure continuity in its realization irrespective of the government of the day.
Vision 2020, too, does not belong to any single party, government or individual. It is a national vision. Once the government commits to realizing it, it has to be discussed and debated in detail by all elected representatives in Parliament so that a national consensus –incorporating the concerns of all stakeholders such as the executive, the judiciary, the political class, media, intellectuals, academia, business, industry, teachers, doctors, farmers, and the youth of the nation – emerges.
Hence the elected leader of the nation – the driving force behind the vision – should be a creative leader who walks an unexplored path of developmental politics with the cooperation of other parties, using the core competences of other leaders, intellectuals, able and creative minds from all disciplines irrespective of their party affiliations, to realize the vision.
‘Why Nations Fail’
I recently read a book called Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. It analyses the socio-economic and political policies of developed and developing nations, and offers some insights which are as pertinent to India as the other nations discussed.
For example, England, after the Glorious Revolution created the world’s first set of inclusive political institutions. As a consequence, economic institutions in the UK also started becoming more inclusive. The English state aggressively promoted mercantile activities and worked to promote domestic industry, not only by removing barriers to the expansion of industrial activity but also by lending the full power of the English navy to defend mercantile interests. By rationalizing property rights, it facilitated the construction of infrastructure, particularly roads, canals and waterways, and later railways, that would prove to be crucial for industrial growth. The British government adopted a set of economic institutions that provided incentives for investment, trade and innovations like the steam engine.
The rebirth of China came with a significant move away from one of the most extractive set of economic institutions and towards more inclusive ones. Market incentives in agriculture and industry, followed by welcoming aggressive foreign investment and state-of- the-art technology adoption and development, have set China on a path to rapid economic growth.
Now it is time for us to ask ourselves what are the impediments to the economic development of our nation? Indian political institutions are inclusive, or at least partially so, based as they are on a democratically elected Parliament and democratic political parties. The question to ponder is whether these political institutions have created inclusive economic institutions. From the results of the economic situation we see around us today, the answer for now is ‘no’. India’s economic growth is not sustainable.
India needs to transform its partially inclusive political institutions and extractive economic institutions into fully inclusive political and economic institutions. Internal reforms and improvements in economic efficiency will help reduce both trade deficit and inflation.
Instead of consumption spending, we need to increase infrastructure spending. Imports of agricultural produce, minerals, coal and petroleum products have to be considerably reduced, and inclusive economic policies should empower Indians to attain competitiveness in the agriculture, industry and services sectors. We need to skill-enable and knowledge-enable our youth by fostering private sector initiatives. It is essential to develop sustainable systems in every domain, so that fluctuations in the world economy do not have a direct impact on the Indian economy.
What India has achieved
We have only six years to achieve the goals of Vision 2020. The nation should take it up as a primary task and facilitate all stakeholders to contribute to realizing the goals of the developed India mission.
India has made substantial progress in enhancing agricultural productivity and increasing per capita income. According to NASSCOM, the IT–BPO sector in India aggregated revenues of $100 billion in FY2012, with export and domestic revenue standing at $69.1 billion and $31.7 billion respectively. India has become the world’s second-largest mobile phone using country, with 900 million users, and the Indian automobile industry has become the third largest in the world. In addition, rural and urban development missions have created large-scale infrastructure such as a national quadrilateral highway, world-class airports in metro cities, and all- weather rural roads. The literacy rate in India stood at 74.04 per cent in 2012. India’s healthcare sector is projected to grow to nearly $40 billion. And we are aspiring to provide clean green energy and safe drinking water to all the citizens of the nation.
Against the backdrop of this growth, we have to assess where we stand in terms of what we aspired to in the 1990s and see if and why there is a gap. It is time for the nation and its leaders to take up a review mission and suggest methods by which we can accelerate progress so that by 2020 India can become a developed country with zero poverty, 100 per cent literacy, quality healthcare for all, quality education embedded in a sound value system for all, and value-added employment for every citizen consistent with his education and professional skills. If we channelize our integrated efforts towards Vision 2020, the economic development of our nation is certain.
It is only our political system that gives the required support to farmers, scientists, engineers, doctors, teachers, advocates and other professionals alike to enable this nation to achieve success in the green revolution, white revolution, the space mission, defence mission, science and technology mission, and infrastructure development mission. What we are today is because of our political system. India’s youth should not keep away from politics but enter it to inspire, guide and lead to make this nation great in all disciplines.
The ignited minds of the youth are bubbling with the spirit of ‘I can do it’ and the belief that ‘India will become a developed nation’. If you all feel that you can do it, India will certainly get the necessary creative leadership at all levels from panchayat to Parliament. These ignited minds will sing the song of youth and lead the nation towards sustainable development. I strongly believe that the youth of my nation, by entering politics, will build a brand of integrity, honesty, value system, courage, commitment and responsibility with accountability around them and practise development politics.
Song of youth
As a young citizen of India,
Armed with technology, knowledge and love for my nation
I realize, small aim is a crime.
I will work and sweat for a great vision
The vision of transforming India into a developed nation
Powered by economic strength and a value system
I am one of the citizens of the billion;
Only the vision will ignite the billion souls.
It has entered into me;
The ignited soul compared to any resource is the
Most powerful resource on the earth,
above the earth and under the earth.
Excerpted with permission from A Manifesto for Change, APJ Abdul Kalam and V Ponraj, HarperCollins India.