Special Reports




Dr Surjit Mansingh


"India Rising - How Far, How Fast?" was first published 12th October 2011.  We now offer further reflections by the author 14 months later. 

"......... no intelligent observer in south, southeast, central or west Asia can ignore the presence and sheer weight of India and militant Islamists apart, all seek greater Indian participation in their own regional concerns".

Little more than a year after the above was written the Indian elephant appears to be standing still in the middle of a crowded and noisy street. She is frustrated no doubt, by the inability of the politicians presumed to be driving her to decide where to go or how to get there. The stench of their corruption, fractiousness, solipsism and neglect of the public good drenches even the smell of elephant dung. Yet the central argument of the earlier article still holds. That is, both positive and negative developments affect subjective evaluations of India’s continued rise, albeit at a reduced pace. My recent travels in India produced more optimism than reading about the country in Indian or Western media reports. However, the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student on December 16 in New Delhi highlights the social regression that has taken place. While more and more women are to be seen working, in schools and Universities, as parts of couples in public places, choosing their own husbands, in responsible positions of public life, more and more men in northern India are trying to intimidate women, deny them property rights or freedom of choice, restrict their movements and even their use of mobile telephones! Mass protests mishandled by the police have followed that rape incident and further stoked anger at the failures of government to protect citizens-- other than self-styled Very Important Persons-- especially women, who make up less than half the population thanks to shocking figures of female foeticide.

As mentioned before, the absence of good government, the abdication of government, has caused a major internal threat to India’s national security: the Naxalite insurgency affecting nearly one third of the country. On the level of every day’s more quiet needs in supposedly tranquil areas, lack of confidence in governmental or judicial probity leads inevitably to greater dependence on kinship links, personal “connections”, and monetary incentives to provide security or accomplish even simple tasks. And that accounts for the fervour of the anti-corruption movement in India. The big corruption scandals may be no greater than those in other countries, but the petty corruption affects every person in India adversely. Yet, this is not so difficult to control, as civil service friends of my generation narrated from their own experience. But we were fired then by the thrill of “serving India” and building the rule of law soon after independence, while too many civil servants of today seem to be more interested in making money and avoiding hard decisions. India has progressive laws—if only they were enforced impartially!

One encouraging fact is the growing discernment of the electorate illustrating the self-correcting quality of democracy. “Identity politics” characterised the 1990s. Elections were fought on the basis of caste and religion. The Hindutva movement privileging a Hindu identity produced widespread communal riots and threatened the unity of pluralistic India. Implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations for affirmative action on behalf of “backward castes” was similarly disruptive. Both were enormously effective in rallying votes for particular political parties. But electorates of today seem to be making their choices on the basis of performance rather than identity. Narender Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has just won a third term as chief minister of Gujarat on his record of a clean administration conducive to economic growth. Modi’s alleged connection with an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002 is set aside and he is projected as a possible prime ministerial candidate in the general elections of 2014. For similar reasons of administrative efficiency and incorruptibility, Nitish Kumar of the Janata Party was re-elected chief minister of Bihar in 2010 and turned around that long depressed state of the middle Ganges valley into one with the fastest growing GDP in the country. On the other hand, the Dalit (low caste) leader of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, lost the elections of March 2012 even though she had done much for the education and health of the common people, because she was seen by them as corrupt and self-aggrandising. Sadly, the corruption and sycophancy of the Congress Party, the ineptitude of his UPA coalition government, and his own political helplessness has shattered the formerly impeccable image of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Public-private partnerships initiated during the 1990s in many states and sectors partially fill the inadequacies of government in building the much-needed infra-structure of economic development. Modernisation of international airports, in Cochin and Delhi for example, are outstanding examples of their success. Public-private partnerships in national highways and railways have eased travel and their generation and distribution of electricity is welcomed. More partnerships are proposed for the critical energy field that cries out for an integrated energy policy. Provision of mid-day meals in government schools by private donors probably does as much to further education as increased recruitment of teachers. But education has been badly neglected, especially in rural India, where more than half the population lives, and lack of skills threatens to undermine any advantage accruing from the demographic dividend of a large working-age population. Benefits of public-private partnerships depend in large part on the quality of the private corporations involved. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation funded by the governments of India and Delhi has accomplished what amounts to a miracle of clean, punctual, rapid transport across the large area of the national capital.

The entrepreneurial talent of Indians is widely celebrated and several Indian companies including Tatas, Mahendras, Wipro, Infosys, and Rambakshi have become international brand names and helped push India’s GDP growth rates above nine per cent a few years ago.

Unfortunately, easy money has led to the crony capitalism known in other parts of Asia with inevitable results of inefficiency and corruption. This is one reason why there is internal as well as external pressure for carrying forward the economic reforms towards greater liberalisation, urgently needed and favoured by all except the ideological Left, but stymied by a dysfunctional Parliament. Outrage at the bad, even criminal, behaviour of Indian members of parliament is not assuaged by knowing that elected members of legislatures even in developed countries with longer traditions of democratic government also neglect their proper duties while increasing their personal comforts.

Given the inadequacies of government and corporations in ameliorating the lot of the common man, it is not surprising that India has the largest voluntary sector in the world with over one million functioning non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Their functions range widely through afforestation of degraded hillsides, literacy, skill generation and empowerment of women, rehabilitation of destitute children, provision of health care in remote areas, encouragement of traditional arts and crafts, to the protection of human rights and use of information technology and right to information laws, to bring about greater transparency and accountability at different levels of government. Certainly, the most exhilarating part of my recent trip to India was a visit to the NGO Aarohi (signifying growth) founded in the early 1990s by my brother’s daughter and her husband in the mountain district of Kumaon in Uttarakhand. Though she died in 1996 of a tragic case of accidental mushroom poisoning her name is revered throughout the region and the local people openly admit that NGOs have brought better sanitation and health to the villages as well as income generating projects based on local produce. Aarohi’s school is flourishing and is now a recognised Hindi medium middle school with scholarships provided for higher education in English medium. More importantly, the pupils I watched one afternoon were happily active, entranced by lessons in geography and science, and practising the songs and dances some of them will present in Delhi and other cities while on a fund-raising tour in January. Aarohi’s cottage hospital too has expanded beyond outpatient emergency treatment to inpatient, diagnostic and surgical care for an average of 4,000 patients a year. In addition, monthly camps bringing in volunteer doctors in different fields are held and remote mountain villages are reached through mobile camps. And all of this within a breath taking view of 26, 684 ft. high Nanda Devi and the accompanying mountain range in the central Himalaya!

My visit to Amritsar in the Punjab was truly inspiring because Harmandar Sahib, the Golden Temple, located there is the sacred core of Sikhism and of the city. Built in the last quarter of the 16th century, the temple is like an exquisite marble jewel box of perfect proportions set in the centre of a holy tank of clear water, with the upper half covered by gold plates by Emperor Ranjit Singh in the 1790s and restored by voluntary contributions world -wide in the 1990s. The Golden Temple exemplifies the main tenets of Sikhism: its foundation stone was laid by a Muslim and Muslim raagis (holy singers) from Pakistan, come to sing on special occasions signifying the ultimate unity of all faiths; its four doors are open to persons of all castes and creeds, reinforcing strong belief in the equality of all human beings; food is offered free around the clock to all those who seek it, an estimated 40,000 a day rising to about 100,000 on festival days; preparation of the food and the rigorous cleaning of utensils is done by volunteers of all stations in life; so is the ceaseless washing of the premises that retain the pristine lustre of marble beneath countless bare feet. When I marvelled aloud at the perfect discipline of the crowds coming in and waiting their turn to cross a narrow bridge and worship from 4.00am to near midnight, I was told it was the effect of kar seva, selfless service performed with love. Would that the same spirit be transposed beyond the temple walls!

Next door to the Golden Temple is Jallianwala Bagh, an enclosed space now converted into a garden, where Brigadier R.E.H Dyer ordered his troops to block the single entrance and fire non-stop on innocent celebrants of a major festival on April 13, 1919. That massacre of 379 persons and more than a thousand wounded sparked horror, and the first nation wide non-cooperation movement against British rule led by Mahatma Gandhi.

Amritsar is only about 30 miles from the major city of Lahore in Pakistan and the ceremonial lowering of flags on the border post at Wagah at sunset every day is an often-televised tourist attraction. More interesting to me were the hundreds of trucks loaded with merchandise lined up for transit across the border next morning. Informal trade between India and Pakistan has long been substantial and lucrative, but formal or legal trade is relatively recent, first between the two Punjabs, and now between the two countries. India and Pakistan have also liberalised their restrictive visa regimes in December 2012 stoking hopes for greater people- to- people contact. The Government of India deliberately continues to hold talks with counterparts from Pakistan, and refrains from retaliation in kind for the numerous and lethal terrorist attacks launched from Pakistan against Indian targets, including the 26 November 2008 massacre in Mumbai (Bombay). Official policy naturally draws criticism from many nationalist quarters but is rooted in the belief, the hope, that those who rule Pakistan will come to see the wisdom of turning away from militancy toward a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship with neighbouring India.

New Delhi’s non-confrontational stance toward both Pakistan and China, which singly and together pose the greatest threats to Indian interests and security, is in keeping with its sober, modest, and frugal foreign policy. No coordinated programme of building comprehensive national power has been initiated to match the talk about India’s ambitions to great power status. The armed forces, however, are finally being provided with some much-needed equipment and weapons systems at considerable outlay of foreign exchange after decades of privation. It is unlikely that military adventurism by Pakistan or China would succeed now. Netizens in India, as in China, tend to be more hawkish than the foreign office and advocate a more muscular approach to the Indian Ocean region generally and especially with respect to immediate neighbours. But a gentler approach, as demonstrated in Bangladesh and Afghanistan, is more likely to succeed in winning friends over the long run. After all, no intelligent observer in south, southeast, central or west Asia can ignore the presence and sheer weight of India, and militant Islamists apart, all seek greater Indian participation in their own regional concerns. This phenomenon is very obvious in ASEAN, as demonstrated at the recent ASEAN-India summit meeting, but is also visible in Japan, Australia, and the United States. Statements by high-ranking members of the Obama Administration naming India the “lynch-pin” of America’s pivot to Asia are not to be taken lightly. Despite the absence of dramatic new items and the presence of many minor irritations on both sides, the Indo-US Strategic Partnership advances incrementally along a very wide stretch of common interests indeed. These common interests include freedom of navigation on the high seas, rule-based governance of the global commons, and peaceful resolution of international disputes. Realisation of these values would benefit the whole world and also fulfil India’s real long-standing ambition: to be recognised as a major contributor to international peace and prosperity.

Surjit Mansingh, December 2012, American University, Washington DC.


Dr. Surjit Mansingh was formerly Professor of International Politics and Chairperson of the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; with a specialisation in Indian foreign policy, especially in respect to China.

She now teaches at the American University, Washington DC. She has previously contributed articles to Newnations: "The Chindia Project" (Feb. 2009); "Prospects for Peace: India and Pakistan" (Feb 2010); and "US President Barack Obama and India" (Dec. 2010).