Emulated or National? Contemporary India’s ‘Great Power’ Discourse

Published date01 June 2013
DOI10.1177/0973598414524104
Date01 June 2013
Subject MatterArticles
Article
Atul Mishra works with the Centre for Studies in International Politics and
Governance, School of International Studies, Central University of Gujarat,
Gandhinagar, India. E-mail: anticontic@gmail.com
Emulated or National?
Contemporary
India’s ‘Great Power’
Discourse
Atul Mishra
Abstract
Its ubiquity notwithstanding, contemporary India’s ‘great power’ dis-
course does not appear to reflect the concerns of the Indian multi-
tude. Recognizing this condition and approaching the discourse as
a political phenomenon that has real effects, this article makes the
following suggestions. First, India’s great power discourse comes into
existence through a pedagogical project wherein the discourse’s core
assumptions about India’s role and purpose in world affairs appear
uncritically emulated from the historical experience of other great
powers, primarily the United States. Second, even though the dis-
course is rooted in a historical experience external to the nation,
it would be misleading to term the discourse as a ‘wholly emulated’
one. The agential participation of at least some Indian nationals in car-
rying out the emulation makes it a ‘more emulated and less national’
discourse. Third, though it is ‘more emulated and less national,’ the
project normalizes the discourse by erasing the signs of its emula-
tion; so that it can be passed off as a ‘wholly national’ discourse.
This allows the discourse to appropriate the entire imaginative space
of the Indian nation and, therefore, of India’s international relations.
Fourth, once aware of these workings of the pedagogical project, we
can wonder how a democratic—that is, a ‘more national and less
emulated’—idea of India’s role and purpose in world affairs could
look like.
Jadavpur Journal of
International Relations
17(1) 69–102
2013 Jadavpur University
SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/0973598414524104
http://jnr.sagepub.com
70 Atul Mishra
Jadavpur Journal of International Relations, 17, 1 (2013): 69–102
Keywords
Great powers, post-colonialism, non-western IR theory, Indian
democracy, pedagogy, emulation, nation
It is a remarkable feature of our times that so many individuals and collectivi-
ties are willing and some even eager to forego their right to design their own
futures.
Ashis Nandy (2007: 174)
A lot about contemporary India is easily ignored these days, especially
its degrading poverty and the rapacious loot of its natural resources. But
it would be difficult to miss the discourse on its ‘great power’ ambition.
Over the past two decades, India’s apparently impending great power
status has become an abiding feature of most discussions that seek to
redefine the country’s role and sense of purpose in world affairs. Due to
a prolonged period of symbolic, idealistic or naïve engagement with
international politics, it is argued in various ways, India kept from real-
izing its true potential in world affairs. However, since the end of the
Cold War, it has been carrying out a series of policy corrections that have
created the possibility of its becoming a great power in world affairs.
Given the enabling features it possesses—a democratic political system,
demographic strength, territorial expanse, historical record, cultural
strength, economic performance, and armed capabilities—India is a
strong contender for a great power status. Indeed, if the country contin-
ues to stay and strengthen the course it has adopted, it would become a
great power in a very short period.
Its ubiquity notwithstanding, the discourse seems to have little reso-
nance with India’s democratic processes. No general election has been
contested on the agenda of making India a great power. No social move-
ment in the country is struggling to influence the governmental appara-
tus to pursue this goal. No empowered group of ministers has been
constituted to examine how India could become a great power; no study
tours have been undertaken to capitals of former and current great pow-
ers to understand how a great power comes into being. While symbolic
national addresses to the Indian multitude occasionally gesture toward
India’s rising profile in world affairs, the mention of an impending great
Contemporary India’s ‘Great Power’ Discourse 71
Jadavpur Journal of International Relations, 17, 1 (2013): 69–102
power status, to be achieved in a stipulated duration, has been generally
absent. It would be reasonable to suggest that for an overwhelming
majority of the country—the most of India—becoming a great power
holds little meaning as it scarcely resonates with their more pressing
concerns. Yet, among a section that can be described as a part of India,
the great power fever lingers like other conceptual maladies that periodi-
cally afflict the intellectual space in the tropics.
Recognizing this discord between a ubiquitous great power discourse
and India’s democratic processes allows us to seek answers to some com-
plex questions. Perhaps the most fundamental of them is about the nature
of the discourse: is it national or emulated?1 That is, are the core assump-
tions about India’s role and purpose in world affairs that make up the
discourse drawn from the concerns and aspirations of the most of India?
Or do they reflect an uncritical adoption of the historical experience of
other great powers? If the answer cannot be expressed in absolute terms,
could we understand the discourse as being more emulated and less
national? If the discourse is more emulated and less national, how does
it manage to appropriate the entire imaginative space of the Indian
nation? How is the discourse’s ambition for making India a great power,
which is shared by a part of India but is alien to the most of India, made
to appear a natural and a desirable ambition for all of India? If the great
power discourse is not national enough, is it possible to think of an idea
of India’s international relations that reflects the concerns of Indian
democracy and is, therefore, more national? Though comprehensive
answers to these questions may evade this article, its attempt to acquire a
better understanding of India’s great power discourse would be conscious
of providing some helpful leads to them.
In trying to understand India’s great power discourse, it is helpful to
postulate the existence of a bi-national pedagogical project with which
this discourse is intimately related. If this pedagogical project could be
considered, following the Durkheimian rule, as a ‘thing,’ it becomes pos-
sible for us to advance the following suggestions. First, India’s great
power discourse comes into existence through a pedagogical project
wherein the discourse’s core assumptions about India’s role and purpose
in world affairs appear uncritically emulated from the historical experi-
ence of other great powers, primarily the US. Second, even though the
discourse is rooted in a historical experience external to the nation, it
would be misleading to term the discourse as a ‘wholly emulated’ one.

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