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Super Century – An Excerpt

What is it about the Indian psyche that makes us so incapable of fulfilling our promise as a nation? Why are we so averse to risk, resigned to mediocrity and mired in a collective lack of confidence? India has so much potential but seems forever stuck on the brink of actualization, unable to muster the political will and geo-economic force to clear the final bar. The stakes are higher than ever, and India’s moment is now.

In Super Century, Raghav Bahl offers a cogent and candid assessment of how we got where we are and a clear blueprint of what we need to do, both at home and in the world, to fulfil our promise going forward.

Here is an excerpt from the book:


The dawn of the twenty-first century brought new geopolitical opportunities for India and the other fast-developing nations christened the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). In the first decade of the new millennium, the twin catastrophes of 9/11 and the 2008 financial meltdown deeply shook America, weakening its position as the world’s sole superpower. With the US suddenly vulnerable and preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the BRICS— especially China—stepped into the void, asserting themselves in the economic and diplomatic spheres. They got a boost from the forces of globalization, which levelled the playing field and transformed the very nature of geopolitical power. No longer could a strong, successful state impose global influence solely through its military; the new world order valued economic prowess—leveraged by citizens, businesses and nongovernmental agencies through trade, aid and culture capital—above all else. For India and other rapidly rising countries with huge populations and untapped potential, that shift opened up a world of new possibilities.

As India’s economy grew, Delhi gradually adopted a larger and more defined role in global affairs, increasingly willing to take a principled stand on matters of national—and international—importance. Still, we struggled to win the world’s respect, denied a seat on the United Nations (UN) Security Council and membership in the Group of Seven (G7)—even though India’s economy is bigger than both Canada’s and Italy’s, which do belong to the G7. Such snubs only feed our national insecurity and spur greater defensiveness.

When Modi took office in 2014, he enthusiastically advanced the narrative of India as a leading power, and Indian confidence swelled. The government abandoned all vestiges of non-alignment and introduced an expansive new policy of multi-alignment, centred on increasing engagement—bilateral as well as multilateral and with friends as well as rivals. Delhi revitalized its partnership with Washington, stepped up its leadership in Southeast Asia and artfully managed China through a balance of engagement and containment. Modi took a more assertive stand against Pakistan, retaliating against persistent small-scale crossborder attacks with open and unapologetic surgical strikes, rather than employing covert actions while pretending to ‘turn the other cheek’. And he gave maritime strategy top priority, particularly in the Indian Ocean, with a focus on new security agreements and greater cooperation with India’s democratic neighbours; in 2015, Delhi agreed to build its first overseas military base in the Seychelles.

Modi himself relished the role of traveller-in-chief. In his first three and a half years in office, he visited forty-nine countries— including the US four times—and met with a dizzying array of heads of state, foreign dignitaries and business leaders, among others. His tireless jet-setting may have helped elevate India’s standing abroad, but it earned him ridicule at home, with critics mocking his jovial banter and awkward bear hugs. In retrospect, all that time on the road might have been better spent overhauling India’s economic policy. But Modi was determined to demonstrate his commitment to multi-alignment; in 2016, he became the first Indian leader since 1979 to skip the annual Non-Aligned Movement summit.

In keeping with this mandate, India has asserted itself diplomatically in sophisticated new ways. While continuing to seek entry into traditional Western-dominated international organizations such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the UN Security Council—as well as gain commensurate influence with the West in bodies such as the World Bank and the IMF—Delhi has also embraced the newer, more nimble BRICS-based alternatives, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Against all odds, India has become a leader on climate change; after years of complaining that emissions caps were unfair to developing countries, Delhi abruptly changed course at the 2015 Paris Climate talks, with Modi joining France’s then President

François Hollande to create an India-based international solar power alliance. And India has taken more initiative in addressing global crises; when a Saudi attack trapped thousands of foreign nationals in Yemen in 2015, India rushed to the rescue, safely evacuating not just its own citizens but civilians from more than two dozen countries—including the US and Pakistan. Indian troops make up one of the largest national contingents of UN peacekeepers.

Going forward, India must continue to pursue greater global engagement. We must look not just West or East, but North and South too, working with big powers and small to shape the global agenda. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain from participating in such diverse multilateral groupings as the ‘Quad’ talks (with Japan, the US and Australia)—as we did for the first time in 2017—and the RIC (Russia–India–China) annual foreign ministerial meetings. Our country’s sheer size, geography and status as the world’s largest democracy make it essential—if not inevitable—that we assume a bigger leadership role in preserving peace and security, both in Asia and the world. That is especially true given today’s rapidly evolving world order, with the US retreating from its multilateral commitments and China eagerly stepping in to fill the void. With Xi Jinping consolidating power and hot-headed rulers in both Russia and the US, India looks relatively stable, reliable and transparent by comparison. It would be a shame to waste that political capital at a time when the world is starved for decisive, rational leadership.

In Super Century, Raghav Bahl offers a cogent and candid assessment of how we got where we are and a clear blueprint of what we need to do, both at home and in the world, to fulfil our promise going forward.

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