India is realizing its place on the world stage in ways that it never has before; now it’s up to its peers to clear a more prominent seat at the table for the world’s largest democracy.
That was the message of Alyssa Ayres, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who stopped at Indian Consul General Nagesh Singh’s residence for a luncheon discussion and book signing last Wednesday, April 18.
The author of “Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World” was headed back to Washington after speaking during the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations’ IndiaFest in Alabama.
During a members-only discussion with World Affairs Council of Atlanta President Charles Shapiro, she started by enumerating ways India’s progress is under-appreciated in the West.
Second largest in the world by population, India is already the world’s No. 7 economy in nominal terms (about $2.5 trillion) and No. 3 by purchasing power parity. And if a fast-growing middle class larger than the American populace isn’t enough, India also boasts a massive military with a nuclear arsenal in what is becoming an even more strategic Asian neighborhood.
Still, despite reforms in the early 1990s that unleashed a new wave of capitalism, India’s global integration has sometimes been hindered by fractious politics that have stymied regulatory reform — what some have called the “democracy tax” in a culturally and linguistically diverse country of 29 states and an electorate of more than 600 million people.
Progress in industries like cars, where India could eventually surpass the U.S. as the No. 2 market globally, has often been overshadowed by the slow pace of change in other manufacturing sectors — much smaller Bangladesh, for instance, has carved out a leadership position in the garment industry, Dr. Ayres said.
“That speaks to some of the problems that India has had, policy issues that have inhibited the size and growth of formal manufacturing, and this has created a real problem with job creation in India,” she said.
Left Out of International Clubs
But these days, economic strength through reform is a major component of India’s quest to become a “leading power” in the world — a term its government coined and is now having to define.
The pace of change has a lot do with the 2014 election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but the sentiment has been present for some time, said Dr. Ayres, who draws a line between the Congress-backed economic reforms of the 1990s and today.
Even recently, Congress — now the main opposition party — has largely endorsed the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s broad framework for making India’s voice heard in the world, Dr. Ayres said.
The problem is that multilateral institutions have been slow to give India the recognition that should accompany a country of its size and influence, she said. India remains outside the United Nations Security Council and lacks membership in the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group.
While these institutions are next to impossible to reform, there’s little reason India should be left out of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, Dr. Ayres argues.
Calling it an “equity” issue, she lamented that India has failed to get a seat at the 21-member body that works together to push forward market reform without having to face the much thornier issue of trade negotiations.
To continue its ascent and make its domestic economy more inclusive, India needs sustained periods of high growth rates that can only be achieved with substantive reform, she said.
A top South Asia specialist who served as deputy assistant secretary for the region in the Obama State Department, Dr. Ayres said she wished the former president would have gone beyond simply “welcoming” to “championing” India’s APEC bid.
“Pulling India into institutions that are committed to free and open trade and investment, that are committed to finding ways to expand this kind of economic exchange — that would seem to me to be a very helpful thing,” she said during the talk with Ambassador Shapiro.
China’s rise has occasioned closer ties between India and the U.S., to the point that President Donald Trump’s administration has elevated the term “Indo-Pacific” in the national security dialogue.
India is buying more U.S. military equipment (including C-130 planes made in Marietta, Ga.) and just last week U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited India to discuss purchases of nuclear reactors and liquefied natural gas from the U.S.
India’s status as an island of democracy, despite tough internal social issues, has made it an attractive security partner to both the United States and Japan, especially as China grows more assertive in the South China Sea and beyond.
“You hear now over and over again this idea that these big democracies in Asia really think it’s important to uphold what we all have been calling the liberal world order,” Dr. Ayres told Global Atlanta in an interview.
But don’t look for the U.S. and India to become formal treaty allies — they’re at odds on issues like Russia, Iran, trade, agriculture, work visas for tech workers and much more. India is still a fiercely independent country, owing in part to its post-colonial ethos of self-reliance, Dr. Ayres said.
Bridging the Gap
To help bridge these gaps of understanding, Dr. Ayres said the U.S. should incentivize more study-abroad programs focused on India.
“There are twice as many American students that go to Costa Rica as decide to study abroad in India, so I think that tells you something about where students see opportunities,” she said.
India, meanwhile, sends more than 100,000 students per year to the U.S.
A speaker of Hindi and Urdu who herself was able to travel to India as a college student, Dr Ayres also noted that only a few thousand students in the U.S. are enrolled in Indian language programs — much fewer than take ancient Greek or Hebrew.
“I don’t have a prescription for what these enrollment levels should be; it just strikes me as quite anomalous and not really [representative of] where India is situated globally,” she said.
Mr. Singh, the consul general, said it’s imperative that Americans begin to gain a more nuanced understanding of his country.
“We are one-sixth of humanity,” he said. “You can’t get away from us.”