(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)
One of the most popular narratives of the late 90s/early aughts was the emergence of India as a candidate for this century’s “superpower.”
We were supposed to finally break the shackles of the past, realize our full potential, and take our natural place among the world’s most powerful countries. But then reality intervened and everyone realized that we weren't really ready for prime-time. However, despite being faced with a large amount of evidence to the contrary, the narrative still strangely persists.
We’re the ‘Ajit Agarkar’ of superpowers. The only reason we’re on the team is because someone with actual power pulled some strings to get us in. A real superpower shouldn’t have millions of malnutritioned children going to bed hungry every night. A real superpower shouldn’t have a complete electricity grid failure for more than half the country because some idiot overloaded the system by switching on his toaster. And the primary objective of a real superpower’s foreign policy shouldn’t be to get every country in the world to like them.
When someone says that they want their country to be a ‘superpower,’ what they’re trying to say is that they now want their country to be the world’s ‘decider.’ The sort of asshole country which tells other countries what to do and where they can stick their ‘sovereignty.’ What they mean is that they want to be the guy in the room who has the remote to the teevee and will continue to watch a documentary on the drainage system of the Aztec civilization even though everyone else wants to watch that show which has ‘everyday people’ eating bugs for money.
What jingoistic patriots don’t realize is that being a superpower is not all that it is cracked up to be.
Superpowers have to keep fighting wars; even those which they have won. Did you know that there are still more than fifty thousand American soldiers stationed in Germany. Why? Probably just in case Germany gets that funny feeling in its stomach and wants to try to take over the world again. In India, we don't like wars. No, not because of the millions of lives that would be fruitlessly lost. No one cares about hippie things like “human lives” in our country. The reason we don't like wars is because they clash with the cricket season.
The various spy agencies of a superpower need to be powerful enough to engineer a coup in unstable countries. Our spy agencies can’t even organize a dinner party successfully.
Superpowers have huge empires. Do we really want to be like the people Tom Alter portrays everytime he is forced to speak Hindi with a bad accent? We’ve always maintained that our country doesn’t want someone else’s territory. We’re happy with what our Mama gave us. Plus, we satisfy all our colonial urges by acting like an occupying force in Kashmir and the North East.
Superpowers need a constant supply of straw enemies to keep a large portion of the country’s populace so terrified that the government could do anything in the name of national security. Okay, I’ll let you have that one.
The demise of empires like Ancient Greece, the Romans, Nazi Germany, the United Kingdom, and the USSR are proof that no superpower stays on top forever. Being a superpower means spending a few years at the top and then eventually fizzling out. Being a superpower means penalising future generations by making them live in a country whose best days have passed but whose people still have delusions of grandeur. If superpowers were people, they’d be the 1983 Indian cricket world cup team - a bunch of has-beens hanging on to every last shred of glory for something which happened decades ago. Maybe it's because I never stayed in a hostel or participated in an NCC camp, but I don't see the point of playing the geographical version of "mine is bigger."
I’m not saying that we should burn all our weapons in a bonfire and invite all our neighbouring countries to hold our hands while we dance around the pyre singing ‘kumbaya.’ However, we could tread a saner yellow brick road. Maybe we could try being the superpower of space exploration (Think of all the “ring view” apartments in gated communities they can build on Jupiter!). We could try to be the superpower of not letting foodgrain rot in government warehouses. If we’re not expending all our energies enriching Israeli defence equipment companies, we could try to be the superpower that provides its citizens with quality healthcare (Most of our current healthcare plans involve asking people who cannot afford treatment to ‘walk it off’). We could even try to be the superpower of not trying to ruin the environment at such a rapid speed that mother earth finally loses her cool and cancels ‘the human race show’ forever.
Or we could just spend all day dreaming about punching China in the face.