Why Ramachandra Guha is wrong

And why the accumulation and good use of geopolitical power is necessary

We discussed Mr Guha’s long essay in Outlook earlier this week. Mr Guha’s argument that India should not even attempt to become a superpower is just about as wise as his hero’s, who had declared that India didn’t need an army.

Harsh Pant has the necessary rejoinder. Excerpts:

What is disconcerting about the piece, however, is the negligible space Guha gives to foreign policy apart from an odd reference to Pakistan and China. It may be that he thinks the domestic challenges facing India are so formidable that only once India had tackled them should it start worrying about the rest of the world. Or what’s more likely is that he thinks if India is able to take care of its internal problems and becomes successful in living up to the highest aspirations of its founding fathers, foreign policy will take care of itself. A truly liberal, democratic, secular India will garner the respect from the rest of the world that it would most certainly deserve.

It is this understanding (or should we say misunderstanding) that leads him to make his subjective desire known — that India should not even attempt to become a superpower because in his view, international relations cannot be made analogous to competitive examination. The problem with this argument is that states do not attempt to become superpowers. They are superpowers, or great powers or major powers by virtue of their capabilities — economic, military, technological, societal — and, contra Guha, international relations is indeed analogous to a competitive examination because only the most capable states in an international system, defined by its anarchical nature, are the ones that are able to keep their citizens most secure and retain their autonomy in foreign policy. States seek power not to become superpowers per se but to survive in a world that is nasty and brutish, to maintain their territorial integrity and the autonomy of their domestic political order.

Guha is right: India is a unique nation and it should be judged in light of its norms and ideals. But all nations think they are unique, that their norms and ideals are the most superior. Only those with adequate capabilities are able to effectively leverage their norms and ideals on the international stage. Guha’s discomfort with power is palpable throughout his essay. In domestic politics, too much power with any single institution is most certainly a recipe for disaster. But foreign policy is not merely an extension of domestic politics and therefore, power needs to be understood differently in the context of international politics.

***

Guha is probably right, India will never become a superpower. But he is wrong to suggest that it should not attempt to be one because that implies that Indian policy-makers should not be working towards improving the material capabilities of its citizens, that they should not be concerned about making India more secure and autonomous.A weak and powerless India will continue to be on the periphery of global politics and it is doubtful if Indians will be satisfied with being a Switzerland or a Madagascar. Indian policy-makers should be working towards the acquisition of greater material capabilities for the welfare of their citizens, for a more prosperous, more secure and more autonomous India. It is in such an India that Guha’s dreams about a more equitable socio-economic order are more likely to come to fruition. And if that ends up making India a great power or a superpower, well, Indians, I am sure, can live with that. [Outlook]

3 thoughts on “Why Ramachandra Guha is wrong”

  1. Pant’s argument is excellently nuanced. Particularly: “Guha is probably right, India will never become a superpower. But he is wrong to suggest that it should not attempt to be one …”

    Corporates have vision and mission statements. Vision is enduring, abiding and is perhaps even unrealizable, but is a perennial source of inspiration. The mission statement on the other hand dictates goals and action for the short- to medium term. India’s vision should be to become a superpower.

  2. Oldtimer, just to nitpick:-)

    The mission statement is the reason for existence of the organization and hence is more enduring and abiding, while the vision statement is “what the organization wants to be”. In this case, you are right that India’s vision should be to become a superpower while her mission is something that is abiding (maybe to be a sovereign, democratic republic that is a union of diverse cultures). Vision statements change often but mission statements change rarely.

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