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Making India Great – Dr. Pande Measures Her Own Country

November 30, 2021

Although 2020 will always be remembered as the dreadful pandemic year there were so many wonderful books that came out to occupy the tedium of home confinement. Aparna Pande‘s Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Global Power is one of them. Written and completed just before COVID-19 swept the planet and released in January 2021, it captures and measures its subject with an unflinching eye. A political scientist and veteran think tanker, Pande has no use for inflated assessments of India and gives Hindutva a solid beat down. “Getting carried away by emotions about other people’s beliefs or views on history often comes in the way of determining a course of action in the present moment,” she writes in her introduction.

Beyond the hyperbolic title Making India Great isn’t a thinly veiled advertisement for the South Asian giant. The reader soon finds a lot of its content is unflattering given India’s developmental challenges. Where it succeeds, however, is providing clear-eyed assessment of where India stands as a volatile Asian century begins to unravel. Rather than skim tedious economic forecasts and check interactive data, poring over Making India Great helps one better understand a country that will make a difference in global politics. The book is divided into six parts, each dealing with India’s salient features; there’s post-independence history, then “Human Capital,” “Economic Potential,” “Geopolitics and Foreign Policy,” and finally “Military and Grand Strategy” before the conclusion.

Pande’s discussion of “Human Capital” is remorseless in laying out how the republic fails to properly educate and provide for its citizens even with an immense youth bulge that shall drive economic progress in the 2020s. This leads to a crisis of surplus college graduates vying for scarce jobs. “Every year, 12 million Indians enter the labour market, but the Indian economy only created only 3.8 million jobs between 2014 and 2017,” Pande explains. “This means the market is unable to absorb more than one-fourth of the 12 million new workers looking for jobs on an annual basis.”

For a country that prides itself for exporting an elite class of IT engineers, the science and technology outlook for India is just as dismal, according to Pande. “India’s spending on R&D as a percentage of GDP is well below what other countries spend,” Pande reveals before explaining how R&D, patents, and training are all metrics where India–with its $3 trillion economy–is lagging behind the rest of the developed world. Readers who wish to explore the nuts and bolts of Pande’s narrative are well-served in her end notes spanning almost 40 pages.

A somewhat disappointing part of Making India Great is when Pande examines New Delhi’s role in Afghanistan. The facts are square enough. Pande cites unfailing support for Afghanistan through $3 billion in aid and thousands of scholarships granted Afghan students. She describes India’s relationship with Afghanistan as an exercise in soft power but recent events showed how useless this became when the Taliban began taking over the country in the summer of 2021, culminating in their triumphant return to Kabul by mid-August. The public record of India’s reticence is damning. When President Ghani’s embattled government pleaded for India’s assistance in the weeks before its downfall, New Delhi didn’t lift a finger, and let a barbarous terror group overthrow a regional ally. This series of unfortunate events sours the book’s cheerful tone on Afghanistan.

Pande is in excellent form when taking stock of India’s military strength. How civilian control over the armed forces has endured across 74 years is remarkable but in other aspects India’s martial institution is ill-suited for the country’s aspiration of becoming a world power. Pande lays it out in style; the annual budget for the armed forces, as a percentage of nominal GDP, is insignificant with its emphasis on salaries and pensions. Allowing for a moment’s aside, the current war footing with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) does prove how unprepared the military is when up against a determined rival. The firepower is certainly there but the vital technological edge is missing and has yet to be found.

By the end of Making India Great the author draws a single important lesson: For success, her country needs a plan. Perhaps several plans, in fact, and the current government with its bizarre ideology hasn’t moved fast enough. “India may have the potential,” Pande writes, “but has yet to make it to the ranks of greatness as a world power.” In fairness to the republic, its population shall reach 1.4 billion citizens in a matter of years. From 2000 until 2019 the World Bank’s data shows the Indian economy grew from $468 billion to $2.87 trillion. For all its shortcomings, one can imagine India’s heft and size by the year 2040.

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