You ask me: whatever happened to our desperate aspiration to be a superpower? It is a good question; particularly now that Narendra Modi has been voted out of power. You may find the reply of a retired mandarin, a member of a club of bureaucrats, a bit whimsical, nostalgic, even contentious. As you know, I was an administrator who was an authority on Nehru, who was sidelined by Mrs Gandhi, who closely watched the power play of the Modi regime. So I speak with some experience. And it is my hope that young thinkers like you may gain some valuable insights from my account of our recent history and use them to shape a better future.
I was sympathetic to the new regime which felt India was both third world and third rate and being treated as such. Our elite were desperate for a seat at the UN Security council, for the machismo of a superpower status. I remember one of them telling me: ‘have you seen those American tourists in hoarding-size Hawaiian shirts, photographing the world they don’t understand; illiterate but confident that American currency is stable, the American economy is secure, that American guns will rescue them if trouble begins, convinced that the world wants to be American. That is being a superpower and I want to feel like that’. Emphatically put. Citizens of a superpower no matter how individually insignificant behave like extensions of the superpower. There is a touch of jingoism in each visitor as if he or she comes wrapped in the US flag.
The word superpower is like an advertisement for an energy drink, promising a boost of masculinity and decisiveness. Superpower envy has always haunted us. At the end of seventy years of nationalist effort the West labelled India as a BRICS nation, the B team of the world. Colonialism was bad but not being taken seriously by the post-Cold War world; where the West itself had begun to decline, this was demoralising. China hiccupped and the world read meaning into it. India protested and the world ignored it. Something, somehow had to be done to wipe our sense of B plusness. We had the third largest army in the world, a huge economy, the third largest pool of scientific talent; most of our population was under twenty-five and yet all these demographic dividends did not add up to superpower scores. Our inability to convert advantages into achievements was devastating us. The Modi government tried to do just that: convert India into a superpower. So let me reply to your question as a post-mortem of that exercise.