India’s Superpower Delusions Some dreams can be dangerous. Especially ones that are not drawn from any sort of reality. Like India’s fixation with being a grand player on the world stage. BY Ninad D. Sheth For a man to be superman, he must first overcome himself —Nietzsche There is a thin line between the audacity of hope and grasp of reality. India’s middle-class, with its fond dream of India as a Superpower, is like a trapeze artist walking that very thin line. Despair too much, and your case is hopeless. Daydream too much, and you topple into a delusionary void. Over the past decade or so, it’s the latter which has been the bigger danger. India the Infotech Iron-pumper. India the Nuclear Non-aggressor. India the Space Scorcher. India the Cricket Conqueror. India the Massive Market. India the Enormous Economy. India the Growth Giant… you get the drift. With a flying cape and coloured briefs, it’s an India ready to make the world spin the other way round on its axis. At the top level, the dream was articulated by an optimist-in-residence at the Rashtrapati Bhavan itself, former President APJ Abdul Kalam. With his technocratic training straight from the rah-rah realm of rocket science, he went forth and set a deadline: 2020. And then got little children all across the land waving little tricolours to pledge their support. The Millennium Goal to beat all millennium goals! The future that was promised! The glory that was destined! Each success has brought another bout of delirium, India’s lunar mission being a fine example. There’s ice on the moon, Jai Hind! So many have grown so fixated on the target, that should we miss our date with Superpowerhood, we might need group psychotherapy for decades to come. But delusions of grandeur, some think, are best cured by grander delusions of grandeur. So, with some digital jugglery—Infotech Imperialism has its privileges—the deadline has been reset to 2012. As if the poor hungry child in drought-ridden Bundelkhand just has to wait for the clock to tick past the midnight of 31 December 2011, and he’ll be reborn in the land of milk and honey. THE WILL TO POWER That a sizzling economy can fuel hysteria has been a new learning. In a way, this is understandable. For a generation of Indians who remember the humiliation of PL-480 food aid from America, a five-year wait list for a scooter, a phone as a symbol of authority, and a working phone as a sign of cosmic rarity, the emergence into this bright new world of choice and plentitude is cause enough for exhilaration. And with $280 billion in the treasure chest and a nuclear bomb in the basement, nobody dare take it away. The ‘Hindu rate of growth’ of 3 per cent has been replaced by a robust 8 per cent. There is ‘feel good’ in the air, and it is making us heady. “There is a feeling that the next generation will be better than the previous one,” says Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research, a think-tank, “In itself, the fantasy is not a bad thing, but to believe that you have arrived can be dangerous. India has a very vast underclass and this just cannot be wished away.” One aspect of the fantasy is the belief that India has finally secured a seat at the high table of global power. After all, the G-8 has become the G-20, coordinating stimulus packages to save the world. As for wielding a veto over world affairs, don’t forget India has achieved parity with the Big Five, having found a cosy place in the Nuclear Club at long last, even if the official membership card is still in the mail. With heft such as this, it is puzzling to have Bangladesh defy India in letting terror camps run amok. Or ragtag pirates thumbing their nose at Indian flag carriers on the high seas. Or even Indians opting for foreign citizenship at the slightest chance. As any international traveller will tell you, all passports are not created with equal prestige. Perhaps it is no surprise that non-resident Indians have played a big role in formulating the fantasy. Oblivious to starvation deaths in Madhya Pradesh but delighted to find Laxmi Mittal as Britain’s richest man, unaware of the scarcity of potable water in Uttar Pradesh but at their loudest holding wine glasses the size of watermelons, they have become India’s cheerleaders. India’s moment, they exult, has come. If only. “Nation building is a hard grind,” says Lord Bhikhu Parekh, political scientist, “Rhetoric, on the other hand, is easy. The Superpower Fantasy thus is an escape from reality. In the Nehruvian era, elections were won on the premise that ‘we cannot offer you a great today but hard work will assure that your tomorrow is better’. This has been replaced by the rhetoric of ‘India Shining’.” This is not the first time that India’s elite has been in a euphoric mood. In 1947, Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ had everyone agog. It was supposed to turn this ancient civilisation into a beacon of enlightenment for the world. The 1962 humiliation by China was a cold shower, and a bitterly sobering one at that. In 1971, it resurfaced. India famously won its first war in a thousand years and split Pakistan. Internally, Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ was the great new adrenalin shot. It ended in a nightmare called the Emergency. Today’s delusion has its origin in the BJP’s atomic muscle flexing at Pokhran. From ‘desert vibrating’, the country was taken in five years to ‘India Shining’—a slogan that lost an election but gave the middle-class an ego kick. Resplendence, it would seem, is like transcendence. Fold your legs, chant the mantra, and you’re there.