India had the world’s largest economy until the 17th century but suffered almost 500 years of decline afterward. However, India is currently the world’s most populous nation with one of the largest economies. Will India continue to evolve and become a global power? Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He shared some answers in this episode of the New Thinking for a New World podcast.
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India’s backstory is largely unknown in the West. Between the 1st and 17th centuries AD, the country had the world’s largest economy, controlling as much as one-third of global wealth. But that seemingly endless prosperity was followed by almost 500 years of decline as India was plundered and pushed aside by modern powers.
Fast forward to 2023: India is the world’s most populous nation with one of the largest economies. The three trillion dollar Indian economy is expected to grow faster this year than any other major country in the world. Foreign investment is pouring in, partly looking for a safe haven from China’s geopolitical ambitions and partly seeking to participate in India’s new dynamism.
The man who has presided over this renaissance—Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in office since May 2014—is a global rock star. Indeed, some pollsters make the case that he is the most popular leader in the world. He has brought a degree of stability to a country where political violence used to be endemic and somehow produced an economically and geopolitically resurgent India. His and the country’s importance are recognized by India’s 2023 presidency of the G-20, as well as the West’s aggressive courting of Modi and India as rivals to Xi and China.
Yet Western (as well as some Indian) critics worry that Modi’s version of democracy is too autocratic and inward-looking, too rooted in Hindu nationalism to be sustainable. And they are skeptical that India has an economic model that can sustain the kind of outsize growth that transformed China from a country with lots of people to an economic superpower.
Is India’s continuing rise inevitable? Can India leverage all those people and their aspirations into supersized economic growth and power? Or might the underlying centrifugal forces of religion, inequality, and nationalism—and the sheer weight of almost 1.5 billion people—overwhelm what Modi and other Indian public and private sector leaders have set in motion? Could India really become an alternative to China?
Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and an accomplished India watcher. He shared some answers in a recent New Thinking for a New World podcast.
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Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program and the host of the Grand Tamasha podcast at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His primary research focus is the political economy of India, and he examines issues such as corruption and governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behavior. He also leads a Carnegie research initiative on the Indian diaspora.