India should be in the vicinity of the US economy in 20 years: Former ambassador Manjeev Puri


India made major headlines recently after a US news outlet reported that India had overtaken the UK to take fifth place in the world economic rankings. In other major news, economists predict the world is staring at a possible recession as conflict, pandemics and climate change stare at governments.

India may not be immune to some of these global upheavals and black swan events increasing after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China in late 2019.

But the booming and boisterous country of 1.3 billion people has inherent strengths that warrant progress for decades to come. In a wide-ranging interview India taleManjeev Puri, former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, shares his optimism about India’s growing economy and recounts the twists and turns in the development of India’s foreign policy.

Excerpts from the interview:

IN: How do you see the future of the country?

MP: In my view, the future looks bright for India – relatively globally speaking. In the coming years, India will become the most populous country. Many of us in India think of our population numbers as a problem, but based on those numbers we will become the third or fourth largest economy in the world.

I’m not talking about Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) here. I’m talking about the size of the economy. Of course, China will be the largest economy. However, some forecasts suggest that the Indian economy should be close to the US in the next 20 years.

These two points – population and economy – will guide the future of India because the size of a country matters.

In any great institution of global governance, the largest country in the world must have a place on the table. Therefore, in future efforts, one cannot say that the largest country should be left out. I believe that two things – being the largest society and being one of the largest economies – will determine how the world perceives us.

Much of the life of my generation was lived during times when we lived the ship-to-mouth existence. Today we sign aid packages – a long way that we have covered from importing food to providing aid. I’m not saying we did great, but we’re changing.

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I will say that you have more power when you have the following elements in your favor – economy and manufacturing, military prowess, numbers of people and thought leaders. I think we have all these elements within us that make us a force.

IN: There is a lot of talk these days about India exercising “strategic autonomy” in its foreign policy. Is there a noticeable change in our foreign policy?

MP: In terms of foreign policy, we were already a unique country in 1947. We were founding members of the UN. We signed the UN Charter in 1945 even though we were a colony. We also signed the Charter of the League of Nations.

We are founding members of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Internationally we are off to a flying start. In comparison, Pakistan had to apply for admission to the UN in September 1947.

So in the early 1950s we were among a handful of countries that formed the UN. As a developing country, we had some advantages and some disadvantages. The first President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) was an Indian – Ramaswamy Mudaliyar. After a few years, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was elected Chairman of the General Assembly.

India led the charge in the world in decolonization. For decades we remained the voice of the South. We were instrumental in founding the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). We also helped establish the Group of 77. We continued to advocate for decolonization.

NAM had great merits for India. So you see, whether it was non-alignment or multi-alignment, that equates to strategic autonomy. I believe that India has always maintained strategic autonomy because it has always been the inherent thinking in India.

We were always destined to play a big role. Our tryst with fate was always there. Although we’re not much non-aligned now, in reality we’ve always been multi-aligned.

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Right now, India is making decisions in its best interests. Ukraine’s overall attitude towards India is an example of strategic autonomy. All those involved in world politics recognize our attitude towards buying Russian oil.

IN: What were some of the turning points in India’s rise?

MP: India has come a long way over 75 years, but it has also suffered many setbacks in that time. Our low point was the 1962 war with China.

Then the 1971 war happened and it changed the world for us. Bangladesh was liberated. It was a landmark moment – India helped liberate a country the world is talking about today. Everyone in the world saw it.

There was a power shift in the way the world looked at India. After 1971 everyone recognized that the Indian Army is a center of power.

Soon after, we crossed a threshold with nuclear testing. India has been recognized as a de facto global player. The nuclear tests made the world sit up and take notice. The first test in 1974 and the second in 1998 made it clear to the world that it is not just about the Indian economy, but also about the world’s largest democracy and a country that plays a role in the global power game.

Our economy has not been doing so well for a long time. With the liberalization from 1991 things started to change quickly. And in the late 1990s, everything turned around.

The country combined democracy with a free market and free trade. It led to a good upswing.

Then Goldman Sachs announced the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) grouping. We were one of the great emerging economies in the world. This was also the time when middle-income countries formed the G20.

Even China has benefited from the opening up of the Indian economy.

IN: How do you envision South Asia in the coming years?

MP: South Asia is becoming an important region in the world itself, provided the South Asian countries can work together and help each other to rise. Otherwise, an opportunity will be missed and countries will end up harming their own cause. I believe it has the potential to become another Southeast Asia if countries can work together.

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In South Asia, Pakistan and Bangladesh are significant only because of their size. They are definitely not India and China, but they lag behind the US in terms of population.

While India will be in the top three to four countries, I think Bangladesh and Pakistan are countries to be reckoned with. Because of their population and economy, they will be in the next line of countries, with the premise that nothing happens to those countries, world politics, and their borders. But with Pakistan, there are several issues regarding the country’s viability, so let’s leave that aside.

Regarding India’s role in South Asia, our Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) is widely recognized and, more importantly, we have made it available to everyone in the region. Just look at the 2004 tsunami (Boxing Day tsunami) where India was one of the largest suppliers of aid to the affected countries, despite being hit by the tsunami itself.

India provided aid during the earthquake in Nepal. We transformed Bhutan because of our technology and financial capabilities. If I remember correctly, we used to help Pakistan. Our projects in Afghanistan are also recognized under the new regime.

India’s cooperation and development assistance projects are carried out all over the world. In the event of natural disasters, we have brought aid as far away as Haiti. We are a country sui generis – fundamentally attuned to the global good.

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