India at Crossroads on Path to Superpower Status

Almost no other country has as many cell phone users; almost nowhere is the communications industry growing faster. Today, Indians can choose from among more than 400 private television channels. The subcontinent is also making great strides in renewable energy. Indeed, Suzlon, the world's fifth-largest wind turbine manufacturer, headquartered in the western city of Pune, recently enlarged its ownership stake in the German wind turbine company REPower and now plans to create more than 100 new jobs in Germany.

India is now the world's largest weapons importer. It has become a self-confident player among leading nations and is now aggressively seeking a seat on the United Nations Security Council. It's also a nuclear power that has expanded its arsenal of warheads and has no intention of signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The Indians sent satellites into space some time ago, and only last week did they announce plans for a mission to Mars. Prime Minister Singh described it as "a giant step for us in the field of science and technology."

The Elephant vs. the Dragon

That's the one India, the high-tech powerhouse of a rising global power, backed up by numbers and proof of its prowess. But then there is the other India: where one in three of the world's malnourished children lives; where two-thirds of the population lives on less than $2 a day; where half the population has no access to toilets and 25 percent still cannot read and write. It's also a country where the power supply is so scandalously unreliable that, in late July, almost 700 million people were without lights and electricity for two days, the railroads stopped running, factories stood idle and some hospitals were crippled.

Is India on the road to becoming a superpower? Or is it condemned to forever remain a developing-world power, on the outside looking in?

The country certainly can't complain of being ignored. A stop in New Delhi has become de rigueur for top world politicians: US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao have all paid their respects to Prime Minister Singh.

It is also the world's largest democracy, with a free press and an independent judiciary, an alternative to the successful Chinese didactic dictatorship and one-party state. India offers innovative private enterprise versus China's model of state capitalism, and creative chaos versus prescribed progressive thinking. The elephant has taken on the dragon, entering into a serious competition in the battle of the systems.

British historian E.P. Thompson wrote that India is "the most important country for the future of the world." Shashi Tharoor, a former United Nations Undersecretary-General for Communications and Public Information and now a member of parliament in New Delhi, says: "India, with its successes and failures, offers lessons for all of mankind, and, with its sustainable development, can outpace its Chinese competitors in the long run."

Lately, though, there has been cause for concern. The Indian economy, which grew at a healthy rate of 10.6 percent in 2010, has slowed, with just 6 percent growth expected for 2012. Even Prime Minister Singh warns that India's security will be in jeopardy unless the country achieves higher growth rates again soon. In addition, foreign investment is weakening, the budget deficit has grown and the Indian rupee has lost a substantial amount of its value.

Can the elephant really dance?

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