Posted by: John Elliott | October 20, 2008

How politicians hinder India’s path to super power status

I asked Lord (Chris) Patten, the former British Conservative Party politician, European  Commissioner, and Hong Kong governor, when he was in Delhi last week, what he thought made a country a superpower. He had said in a speech that, whatever its current (Iraq) horrors and other (economic) problems, America was still a superpower because, among other things, it is “the only country that matters everywhere”.

Tempting him to state the obvious – that India wasn’t there yet – I asked for his definition. I mentioned that Penguin (publishers of his new book What next? Surviving the 21st Century) had also just issued a very upbeat work on India by a BBC journalist colleague, Daniel Lak, with the rather over-egged title, Indian Express – the future of a new superpower.

Lord Patten said that a super power was a country that “had the clout, and was prepared to use and throw it around across cultural, military, economic, commercial and educational fields”. India, he said gently, wasn’t there yet, despite its growing importance internationally

I’ve now thought of another essential criteria – or pre-requisite – that bars India from super power status, and is likely to do for many many years to come. It is that a large minority (or more) of a country’s politicians need to care about policy and the future of their country, instead of just serving their personal and political ambitions. In India such a large minority does not exist, so the country lacks effective leadership.

I know of course that many US politicians do not individually meet this criteria, and that political and commercial corruption and self-serving deals and pay-offs go to the top of the current administration, as they have in the past. But there is surely a large minority of politicians who care, as there are in the UK and many other countries.

In India however this is rare, as the behaviour of three prominent Indian politicians over the past couple of weeks demonstrates.

Mamata Banerjee, for her own narrow political goals, effectively drove Tata Motors out of its Singur factory in West Bengal and into Gujarat and the hands of Narendra Modi – a controversial chief minister , who is regarded as a Hindu nationalist tyrant by many critics but at least knows how to develop his state and improve the lot of the people who live there. Whatever his faults, he serves the people in terms of economic and social development

Praful Patel, the Aviation Minister, who has hubristically presided over an irrational rate of growth in Indian aviation, and Murli Deora, the powerfully-connected Minister for Petroleum, are the other examples. Their treatment last week of Jet Airways, when its founder-chairman, Naresh Goyal, announced 800 instant (and 1,100 planned) redundancies among his loss-making airline’s staff, makes my point.

Jet is based in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, so it was perhaps not surprising that Raj Thackeray, leader of one of the two factions of the Maharashtra-chauvinistic Shiv Sena political movement, said that no Jet Airways aircraft would take off from Mumbai if anyone lost their job. Mr Thackeray spoke as the leader of the Maharashtra Navniram Sena political party, which is known for use brutal gangs to enforce its will (on October 21 he was arrested  for inciting rioting and assault on north Indians working in Maharashtra).
Instead of trying as Aviation Minister to calm a developing crisis, Mr Patel, a leader of the Maharashtra-based National Congress Party, then played to his local constituency . He condemned the redundancies and said they should be cancelled – apparently determined not to be outgunned by Mr Thackeray.

Next, Mr Deora stepped in and took the same line. He was not speaking as Minister for Petroleum, but as an important Mumbai politician with a political base he felt he had to protect, even if it meant undermining Jet Airways.

Both men ignored their ministerial portfolios and attacked Jet and Mr Goyal and, together with Mr Thackeray, forced him to cancel the redundancies.

Mr Goyal handled his airline’s lay-off announcement disastrously and arguably deserved the angry staff and trade union protests that erupted. But he did not deserve, with his airline facing a financial crisis,  to be publicly crippled by two cabinet ministers who showed more interest in regional power politics than in solving the country’s problems.

That’s not how a super power is made.



  1. Correct assessment. Current crop of politicians in India are interested in the acquisition of power and retaining it, for two reasons, one to amass more personal wealth and second to guard it. If they lose power they are likely to be caught( which is a rarity, as all rogues are in cahoots in swindling). So, their effort is channelized into out scoring each other in their turf by becoming one up, without bothering whether their actions are good for the Nation. Take the case of Murli Deora, he is openly promoting one of the Ambani brothers blatantly with out shame in Parliament.
    Playing to the gallery is their forte. Or take the Tamil Nadu CM, he is busy organising symposiums dedicated to praise himwhile doing nothing to promote the State. Keeps on offering freebies like color television sets, offering Rice at Rs 2 per kg without an idea about fianancial implications and the fact that he is creating a group of parasites in a community, who will not work for they get things free.
    Again, politicians like Raj Thackeray are nothing more than goons; to outpace his Uncle he is projecting himself as Champion of the sons of the soil and forcing people from other states to quit. How does the Govt. react? Token arrest and release in 5 to 10 hrs! Some guys like Tamil Nadu CM goes on Indefinite hunger strike from 6 am to 12 noon to force SriLanka to stop bombing in Tamil areas. Just as he concluded his fast(!), reports came Srilanka was shelling. His response’Rains have ceased, but showers remain’. These people take Langauage as their tool to intimidate public and hinder progress. When New industries are set up (West Bengal) opposition starts in hooliganism, and ruling party in the state resorts to thuggery by its cadres. Result the industry was moved out of State.
    At the same time large scale financial fraudsters go scot free, as Satyam Raju. For the record he is in jail albeit in better comfort than at home.
    At the international level, India is yet to decide whether to be aggressive or acquiescent.
    Younger generation toils without direction from leaders. Leader is one who thinks of Nation first and last, Even if some measures are unpopular, but are good in the long run, they are to be taken, not withstanding the fact one who advocates such an action will become unpopular. Classic example is Rajaji, easily one of the best Chief ministers India ever had. It is sad and funny that he had never won a direct election, went on to become CM of Tamil Nadu and laid the foundation for Strong Tamil Nadu, but nominated to the upper house.

  2. Good write-up, Mr. Elliot. As far as the post by Sumit Mitra is concerned, he is just another good citizen who is defending his country. However, British are not to blame for India’s poverty. They were smart enough to convert a land of fighting warlords – Rajputs and Mughals and a number of Indian kingdoms, into a factory that spit out gold. If India was never ruled by the British, would it have been a single Indian State as it is today, or would it have developed at the rate industrial economies developed at that time? I am not supporting Britain’s colonization. I am just saying that we are not there yet. Blaming today’s poverty on the past – which didn’t really push us back as much as we believe, won’t help!


    I suspect India got pipped at the post of superpowerdom a couple of centuries back by none other than the motherland of both Lord (Chris) Patten and John Elliott. I mean, Britain.

    If Siraj, the Nawab of Bengal, could be gifted by his generals with the severed head of Robert Clive (instead of the other way round, as it happened), there would be no Fort William till Prince William. Then we Indians could suck the blood of our peasants, instead of letting it be converted to pound sterling and then go to produce nabobs and Westminster VIPs.

    In fact the prerogative of mastering the opium economics of the 19th century could be ours. It were to be Indian smugglers and not British who would have carried Bengal and Malwa opium to Canton, via the little island that was to be graced by Sir Chris Patten’s governorship one day. Needless to say that we’d have fought the Opium Wars with French guns, and won. Oh yes, that big square in London would not be named Trafalgar Square as Britannia, without her Empire in the east, might not have ruled the waves.

    With Hong Kong an Indian colony for 150 years, we could surrender it gracefully to China but for a price. Maybe in exchange of so many square miles of our area in the Himalayas (I doubt if China would have dared grab our land if we became superpower when China was still peasant power).

    If we could defeat Clive, Britain would still come to us. But that’d be for business, not empire-building. We’d have met as equals. India could be the largest market for Arkwright’s spinning frame and Watt and Boulton engines. Eventually Britain could even land her best export to India, the rule of law, without the ‘colonial difference’ of course.

    John Elliott, I think you are pointlessly fretting about the poor quality of Indian politicians today, though I entirely agree with your assessment. But the die was cast two centuries back.

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