Can a poor country be a great power? Three examples from recent history suggest it can.
These parallels would have weighed on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's mind as he flew to the southern resort city of Sanya in China's Hainan province for the BRICS (a grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit.
When 19th-century Britain became the world's most powerful nation, it was still relatively poor. It had the world's largest economy but, as the cruelties of Dickensian London showed, it also had deep pockets of real poverty. The US was the world's largest economic and military power at the turn of the 20th century even as most ordinary Amercians, including the new wave of destitute immigrants from Ireland and Italy in the early-1900s, struggled to earn a living.
China, already a global power by 2000, was then still a poor country with a per capita income of $1,500, roughly the same as India's per capita income today calculated in real exchange (not purchasing power parity) terms.
The critical question therefore is: Why does India, despite being the world's second fastest-growing major economy — and which, according to the 2011 Citi report Global Growth Generators, will have the world's largest GDP of $85.97 trillion in 2050 — continue to punch well below its geopolitical weight? The short answer: While poverty, as history proves, is not a hurdle to great power status, misgovernance, corruption and a timid foreign policy certainly are.
India ranks 119th on the latest Human Development Index (HDI) and 87th on Transparency International's corruption ranking — but fourth on PricewaterhouseCoopers' global GDP table (by purchasing power parity), behind the US, China and Japan, and fifth on the Index of Government Economic Power (IGEP) released as part of a new ranking of 112 governments with the Economic Survey for 2010-11.
To make sense of this disconnect, examine our proprietorial Geopolitical Power Index (GPI): 2011 which collates quantitative data and qualitative parameters to rank each nation's ability to project hard and soft power globally.
To create this first-of-its-kind index of geopolitical strength, the world's 10 most important countries were selected on the basis of their global economic, military and cultural influence. They were then ranked on a scale of 0-10 across eleven key criteria which constitute ingredients of geopolitical power. Each criterion is based on five sub-parameters.
Obviously, the GPI rankings are not static. A country trends up, down or sideways. These trendlines are denoted in the chart by (+) or (-) markings; sideway trends are unmarked. For example, India scores a high 8(+) on population (outstanding demographics) and 7(+) on economy (strong consumption and investment). But it does abysmally on development (3+), a reflection of poverty, hunger and decrepit civic infrastructure though the (+) trendline indicates that high GDP growth is having a positive impact on all three.
India also does poorly on governance, despite its prized democracy, with a score of 4(+). Corrupt politicians, complicit bureaucrats, biased law enforcement and tainted judges have shaken citizens' faith in institutions.
Governance deficit has dented India's international image. But has it slowed its global ascent? Not significantly. The (+) marker in the GPI 2011 chart denotes a positive trendline: pressure from the judiciary, media and civil society is increasingly enforcing government accountability. India continues to grow in spite, not because, of its political leaders. This has allowed it to edge into third place in the GPI 2011 rankings with an overall score of 65 (behind US and China and ahead of Britain and France). The projection of Indian geopolitical power and influence globally lags behind its GPI 2011 rank because of the government's timorous foreign policy mindset. India has to learn how to "think" like a great power, as The Washington Quarterly recently observed, and abandon its policy of "strategic restraint".
India scores well on four key qualitative parameters: history, religion, society and diaspora. These are "soft" factors that subtly but significantly affect a nation's interaction with and influence on other countries. India's non-violent history, multi-religious society and global diaspora (which takes Indian popular culture and ancient traditions to every corner of the world) are assets in India's ascent.
How do India's peers and competitors fare? China scores well on economy, population and geography (strategic north Asian location) though its aging workforce gives it a negative trendline on population demographics. Beijing does badly on governance (2) owing to repression of freedoms by the communist regime, now under increasing pressure from cascading pro-democracy movements in West Asia. China ranks high (7) on culture on account of its cohesive Confucian traditions.
The US is clearly a declining power. But, as the overall 2011 GPI ranking (which the US tops with a score of 80) shows, it is still the world's most influential nation. Besides getting a 10 (-) for military power — with a negative trendline due to its overextended armed forces in Afghanistan, West Asia and the Korean peninsula — the US rates 9(-) on culture because of the powerful worldwide influence American popular culture wields, from McDonalds and Hollywood to Google and Facebook. The US leads the world in technological innovation (9) but lags on history (5), a consequence of the taint it still carries for its Atlantic slave trade, institutionalised racism (rampant, in the deep south, as recently as the early-1960s) and a breakdown in family values.
How about the rest of the world? Britain ranks fourth overall in the 2011 GPI chart behind the US, China and India largely on account of good governance and the "Imperial Effect" — the ability to project military power worldwide, an influential diaspora and strong popular culture exported globally through the English language. But the trendlines on many of Britain's parameters are sliding terminally.
Russia gets high marks for military prowess (8) and geography (9), with its land mass strategically straddling Europe and Asia, but low marks for governance in the shadow of Vladmir Putin's authoritarian regime which has stifled political dissent. Brazil and South Africa's final rankings bisect Japan and Germany's which, despite high per capita incomes, are beset by declining populations and chequered histories.
For Manmohan Singh, in southern China this week for the BRICS summit, the inaugural Geopolitical Power Index for 2011 has three takeaways. First, deep political reforms are necessary to check misgovernance. Second, tackling poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition is critical to India's rise. Third, Indian policymakers must project a more robust foreign policy.