26 February 2024

New Delhi, India


For a long time, some outsiders said of India: “it’s a country of great potential – and always will be”.

To those sceptics, I declare that modern India remains a country of vast potential but is already a country of great achievement.

It’s already the world’s fifth largest economy, the fastest growing large economy and will be the third largest within a couple of decades.

It’s still a developing country, but at least 80 per cent of Indians – or something like 1.1 billion people – now have access to proper sanitation, over 90 per cent have access to good drinking water, and 97 per cent have access to reliable power; small things, maybe, in a geo-political context, but they make a massive difference to people’s lives.

Thanks to the digital revolution, nearly every Indian adult is now economically and socially connected.

There’s long been a legendary rail network, but India is now building airports at the rate of eight a year, urban metro systems at the rate of one and half a year, and national highways at the rate of 30 kilometres every single day.

Last year, India became just the fourth country to land a space probe on the moon.

And after several decades of the licence raj, India is now roaring down the runway to economic take-off.

Companies such as the Ambani group, Tata and Infosys are among the world’s largest, there are three Indians amongst the world’s 50 richest people, and there’s now any number of ethnic Indians at the helm of major global businesses.

And India isn’t just the world’s largest democracy, it’s also one of the oldest, having been continuously democratic – with just one tiny wobble – for more than three quarters of a century.

India’s democracy is older than Germany’s and Spain’s; it’s older than France’s Fifth Republic.

India has had more changes of government than Japan. 

Its media is free as America’s.

And its judiciary is as robustly independent as Britain’s.

India has long proven that a country need not be rich to be free.

And it’s now proving that freedom is no obstacle to rapid economic development.

Yet mysteriously, India often ranks well down the global democracy lists, produced by Freedom House and others. Perhaps that’s because they think of Prime Minister Modi as a “Hindu nationalist”, when I think he’s better called an Indian patriot who necessarily takes Hinduism seriously as by far the country’s biggest creed.

Sadly, faith in god and love of country are pretty rare in western think tanks, which is why they find India’s democracy easier to caricature than to understand.

As prime minister, a decade back, I used to describe India as “the world’s emerging democratic superpower”.

Under Modi, India is no longer a bystander but increasingly a force in the world as one of the two democratic superpowers.

And I’m confident, that if there is to be a leader of the free world 50 or 100 years hence, it’s as likely to be the Indian prime minister as the United States president.

India has always been the super-power of the subcontinent.

It’s never been the aggressor in its wars and tensions, which it’s always tried to resolve quickly, fairly, and in ways that allow others to be the best they can.

And now global leadership is beckoning.

For a long time, India was a leader of the non-aligned movement, trying to stay aloof from big global struggles.

Now, India’s a leader of the “global south”, and as such speaks up for poorer countries to get the fair go they deserve.

For all to have the respect and the national independence that India won for itself, against the super power of the day, that was slow to acknowledge India’s right to be free.

To that end, India has now helped form a new partnership for freedom and development.

Unlike NATO, the Quad is not American-led.

Indeed, it would not exist but for Shinzo Abe’s foresight and determination; and for Narendra Modi’s perception and magnanimity.

Unlike NATO, the Quad is not a military alliance.

Unlike NATO, it lacks formal structures.

It’s actually a bit like the Five Eyes, a largely informal network, based on shared values, common interests, and high ideals that’s nonetheless helped to keep the peace for seven decades.

As Foreign Minister Jaishankar said on the weekend, the Quad is “here to stay, here to grow, and here to contribute”.

If that works out, with annual leaders’ summits and scheduled officials’ meetings, it certainly could be the most important strategic initiative since NATO. 

Even though it’s not against anyone.

It’s for the rights of all to be free, and aims to help all to be better-off, in a world of peace, national freedom, and international cooperation; to tackle global problems like under-development, infrastructure poverty, and environmental degradation.

But that does means standing strong against those who would breach the peace.

The militarist, Islamist, and communist dictatorships, that think they have a right to impose their systems on others; and that could, if mishandled, plunge the world into a new dark age.

The Russian dictator thinks he’s on a mission from god to destroy Ukraine, even though its people have every right to look west rather than east.

Apocalyptic Islam seeks a new holocaust, expunging Israel from the river to sea.

And communist China bullies its neighbours, even India, as part of its oft-declared intention to be the global hegemon by 2050.

Its next step is taking Taiwan, by force if necessary, a practically independent country of 25 million people, that’s never been under communist rule, that’s hardly ever been governed from Beijing, and that’s living, breathing proof that there’s no totalitarian gene in the Chinese DNA.

As a backpacker in India, 40 years ago, I spent three weeks in Bokaro Steel City, as a kind of teacher’s aid at St Xavier’s School, so I do understand the practical help that the old Soviet Union gave India; at a time when the United States, unwisely, was tilting to Pakistan.

So I can understand why India is reluctant to be publicly critical of Russia, for historical and practical reasons, although PM Modi did indeed upbraid the Russian dictator, at Samarkand, for using war as an act of national policy.

Even so, I’ve yet to meet an Indian who doesn’t think that the wanton destruction of Ukrainian cities without the slightest attempt to minimise civilian casualties is simply evil.

With greater strength comes greater responsibility; that’s my sense of where Prime Minister Modi is taking India, and it couldn’t come at a more critical time.

When India helps to preserve freedom of navigation in the Arabian Sea, that’s not taking America’s side against Iran; that’s protecting the global commons.

Likewise, any country that helped Taiwan to resist a Chinese invasion, wouldn’t be on the side of America against China, but on the side of democracy versus dictatorship.

Were India to help Taiwan, a bit like it helped Bangladesh five decades back, far from playing the great power politics it’s always deplored, it would be helping the weak against the strong, in the eternal struggle to heed the better angels of our natures.

The best hope of avoiding great power conflict in coming years is for free peoples everywhere to make it clear that an attack on one small country is an attack on everyone. So my friends, there is no doubt that this will be an Indo-Pacific century; but with its unshakeable commitment to democracy and the rule of law, let’s hope that this Indo-Pacific century turns out to be more India’s than China’s.