It is not new for the Washington-based Pew Research Center to carry out global approval polls on China. But this year’s poll is a little different as it reaffirmed India’s arrival on the world stage as a potential power, though way behind China in stature.
A median of 66 per cent of respondents across 19 countries — including America, Canada, 11 European nations, five from Asia and, Australia — felt China’s influence was rising on the global economy. Russia came second with 41 per cent. Only 32 per cent rooted for America. India stood fourth with a 28 per cent approval rating.
The perception is not far from reality. Beijing has been consolidating its position as an emerging superpower for the last two decades. The rise was particularly evident over the last decade when President Xi Jinping launched the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
There is also little surprise that the perception of the US has taken a beating. It was under pressure for some time. The sequence of events over the last two tumultuous years didn’t help the cause.
From shoddy handling of the Covid-19 pandemic situation by the former Donald Trump administration, the rise of the China-Russia axis, and the apparent helplessness of the Joe Biden administration in reining in Moscow — there was little to speak in America’s favour.
In this context, the latest approval rating on Delhi's rising influence is significant for many reasons than one. First and foremost, until recently India was considered a ‘benign power’, with limited resources and the ability to match the aggressive Chinese competition.
Back in 2013, when China launched the BRI; India was sitting on empty promises to the neighbourhood. From International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) to Chabahar Port, Trilateral Highway or Kaladan Multimodal — the story was the same everywhere.
Even the India-Bangladesh development partnership programme failed to make much progress. The first line of credit of $1 billion (2010) was barely disbursed, and the age-old conflicts on land and maritime boundary continued. Coastal shipping and defence cooperation were in the dreams.
The Indo-Sri Lankan defence cooperation treaty was called off by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in Delhi, in 2004, to keep a state-level coalition partner Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) of a coalition partner Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) happy.
From the Maldives to Nepal; China had the framework ready to take the neighbourhood by storm and so they rolled out BRI. It took nearly five years of groundwork by the Narendra Modi government to turn the wheel and put up competition in the neighbourhood.
As of today, many INSTC and Chabahar Port started operations. Sittwe Port is complete and construction of the Sittwe-Mizoram road-link and the Trilateral Highway is continuing despite the turbulence in Myanmar. Indo-Bangladeshi cooperation is escalated by multiple notches.
The Maldives is rescued from the Chinese debt trap. Indo-Sri Lankan cooperation is on the fast track and the current Nepalese government is resisting BRI loans.
Ending the fluidity of the status of Jammu and Kashmir was arguably the biggest development that had taken place on the geo-strategy front. It denied the China-Pakistan axis its traditional clutch on India’s domestic policies.
Stepping up the gas on defence sector modernisation; fast implementation of pending military logistics projects and; dramatic improvement in infrastructure and connectivity across the country, particularly in the border economies in the north — have increased India’s readiness to take on competition both militarily and economically by a few notches.
The biggest change that has come is in the mindset. One Balakot air strike robbed Pakistan of its ‘nuclear-power’ safety badge to send non-state actors to cause bloodbaths in India. Everyone knew the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is a waste of time. Modi dared to dump it and take regional cooperation ahead, minus Pakistan.
By any standard, India’s economic integration with neighbours increased manifold over the last decade and the credit goes to this single step of isolating the rotten apple.
Today that same Pakistan, which always sabotaged the cause of regional and cross-border trade, is eager to resume trade with India, for its benefit.
Energy transition, dedicated freight corridor, encouraging startup development — name any project that the Modi government fast pedalled, each of them was initiated by the previous governments. Modi gave them a scale. From railway to rural electrification; projects were implemented at an unprecedented pace.
Goods and services tax (GST) was proposed in 2000. For the next 14 years, till 2014, they kept on killing time by passing the buck to each other.
The Manmohan Singh government had set up the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) to produce cheap biometric I-cards that would be key to the direct transfer of social benefits. But he left it as a dud. Modi made it a powerful tool.
Schemes were running for decades for universal access to toilets, drinking water or banking services till someone gave a strict timeline to finish them. The spree to open zero-balance banking accounts (Jan Dhan) later became the backbone of India’s path-breaking mobile interface payment system.
The same framework came in handy for the smooth implementation of the Covid vaccination programme. Considering the status of the health infra as of March 2020, not many were ready to count on India’s ability to fight against Covid.
Top economists ruled out the country’s prospects after a sharp contraction in gross domestic product (GDP) in June 2020 quarter. The developed world and vested interests at home sneered at the country’s promise to roll out vaccines.
In the end, India did way better than many or most developed countries in handling Covid and ensuring the fastest recovery among the major economies. Yes, it did have its moments of worry. But which country didn’t?
All of these are culminating in the improving perception of the country’s ability, which is somewhat similar to what China was witnessing in the take-off stage in the late 1990s or early 2000s.
And, that’s a big leap forward for a country that was liberalised 13 years after China opened up its economy, and had to operate in a transparent, democratic set-up.
The same Western media that remained blindfolded when China was carrying out its social engineering in broad daylight; makes a potshot at the resurgence of nationalism in India. They forget that India didn’t delay a single state election due even during the pandemic.
They forget that India is the last hope of the democratic world to prove that fast growth, time-bound implementation of plans and programmes and, strong leadership are not an exclusive domain of single-party ruled non-transparent economies.
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