Modi’s India: a case of mismatched priorities

India needs to concentrate on cooperation instead of competition for the region to prosper

Zahid Ul Hassan July 02, 2023
The writer is a retired Air Commodore from Pakistan Air Force and an expert in matters related to regional and global strategy, and security. He can be reached at


The presence of geopolitical challenges and socio-economic fault lines inhibit India’s global power ambitions. Geopolitical challenges include meeting the Western apologists’ assigned role of counterweight to China, perpetual confrontation with two nuclear neighbours having the danger of escalation, state-sponsored terrorism against Pakistan, poorly implemented nuclear security regime, unresolved border disputes with all its neighbours, separatist movements, the resurgence of Khalistan movement, continued illegal occupation of Indian held Jammu and Kashmir, and violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions for the right to self-determination to Kashmiris. Hindutva-driven religious extremism, caste and creed based social fissures, brutalisation of minorities, poverty-related social vulnerabilities and ever-increasing intolerance in society are a few of the socio-economic fault lines.

According to the United Nations Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) Report-2022, which measures poverty across three key dimensions of health, education and living standards, and uses 10 indicators (nutrition, child mortality, years of schooling, school attendance, sanitation, cooking fuel, drinking water, electricity, housing and assets), India had the highest number of people amongst all countries of the world who were living under the poverty line. There were 229 million (21.2%) people living in India who were poor and did not have access to these essential requirements while there were 413 million (34.4%) people who did not have access to essential requirements like nutrition, cooking fuel, sanitation and housing. During the pandemic, around 75 million people were added to this category. According to World Resources Institute’s estimation, a US based research organisation, India would require 3.2% and 6% of its GDP to provide drinking water and sanitation respectively, for its population by 2030.

Over the years, Indian political and military pundits have been using counterweight to China and two front war mantras to acquire Western military hardware and to justify heavy defence expenditure respectively. India’s unilateral revoking of Articles 370 and 35A in August 2019 not only brought China into the equation but also put the two front scenario in the limelight. However, this environment has been heavily costing the already poverty-stricken people of India. In regards, India increased its annual defence budget from USD 14.75 billion in 2002-03 to USD 76.6 billion in 2021-22 (520% increase with a total of USD 899.33 billion) and became the third highest defence spender in the world after the US and China. During the next few years, India plans to spend USD 130 billion to modernise its existing war machinery and procurement of newer military hardware. However, in reality, India is still far from getting any closer to its ambitions. Rather, the acquisition of diverse origins of military hardware has already created interoperability challenges besides posing serious employment and deployment limitations against nuclear armed neighbours. It may be pertinent to highlight that during this period, India did not encounter a major military conflict at its Western or Eastern borders; rather, Indian misadventures had to face humiliation from Pakistan and China in February 2019 (Operations Swift Retort) and June 2020 (Galwan Valley) respectively.

Superimposition of the Indian poverty profile over its defence spending reveals that there has been a clear case of poor understanding of the geopolitical environment, pursuit of over ambitious objectives, and setting of misplaced priorities on the part of the Indian political and military leadership. Excessive military spending and the prevalence of pockets of abject poverty have turned out to be two intensely intertwined phenomena for India.

A brief comparison of the prevailing economic environment reveals that the Indian desire to project itself as a competitor to China doesn’t hold solid ground. China is a global power and according to World Bank archives, it has foreign exchange reserves of USD 3.205 trillion, nominal GDP of USD 19.37 trillion and GDP per capita of USD 16,297. China is connecting the world (147 countries) and has already spent USD 01 trillion out of over USD 08 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), leading the world in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and over the last two decades, has pulled over 770 million people out of poverty. China’s annual defence budget is USD 225 billion for 2022-23 and it is indigenously producing the most modern military hardware.

Comparatively, India is a modest economy with USD 589 billion in foreign exchange reserves, nominal GDP of USD 3.74 trillion and a GDP per capita of USD 2,600. India has about 800 million people living under the poverty line, ever dependent upon eastern and western manufacturers for the provision and maintenance of its military hardware. In all the manifestations, there is no comparison between the two countries. The economic and technological differential between both countries is so huge that even if India uses all its worth and works tirelessly for decades, it may not be able to close the gap. Additionally, China is one of the major trade partners of India with a bilateral trade volume of USD 135.98 billion during 2022, overwhelmingly lopsided in favour of China with over USD 102 billion. It appears that because of mounting political pressure from Western apologists vis-a-vis economic interests with China, India has to review its role as a counterweight to China. In this regard, Mr Ashley Tellis, the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently wrote that India can ill afford continued confrontation with China and “New Delhi won’t side with Washington against Beijing” in case of conflict between them.

Although India projects Pakistan as the other front of its two front mantras however, Pakistan is a peace-loving country and has amply exhibited its capability and resolve to defend itself against Indian aggression. India has not been successful in subduing Pakistan while aspirations of confronting China, may at best be termed as daydreaming. Such a contestation seems more unreal under the fact that as remarked by US Military analyst Donald Brennan of Hudson Institute, New York in 1962, nuclear wars must never be fought because they can never be won, it would only result in Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

A dispassionate assessment of the geopolitical environment suggests that one can choose friends but not neighbours, and maintaining confrontation with its neighbours is by no standards a cost benefit affair. It appears that India has been pushed into a disproportionate competition which it is not capable to win. Therefore, India needs to concentrate on cooperation instead of competition for the region to prosper and maintain strategic stability, which would be a win-win situation for all sides.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 2nd, 2023.

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