India has broken into the top five economies of the world, beating, at latest count, the United Kingdom and France. Indian business leader Mukesh Ambani has said that it is only a matter of time before India enters the top three economies in the world.

This has once again raised the question: How long before India is considered a Great Power?

How does a nation become a Great Power? Well, the answer in international relations is that it depends on what you mean by Great Power.

One might think that’s quite obvious: A combination of military and economic might, but it’s a bit more complicated. For instance, how much military might is enough to be declared ‘great’? Indeed, how much economic muscle?

The neorealist Kenneth Waltz would argue that being a Great Power is about possessing a certain self-evident trait. Take the US: it has been a Great Power for several decades and continues to be one.

But what constitutes this trait?

Waltz argued that it was based on military strength, political stability, the economy, resources, population, and territory—broadly, what kind of power a country could exert, what kind of resources it had, and its status.

None of this is easy to define. At one point, Leopold von Ranke, when considering Prussia, noted that a Great Power was able to take on, and presumably defeat, the combined strength of its rivals. But non-traditional forms of assault—that could yet have a devastating impact on a nation, whether by using lone agents like in 9/11 or through biological weapons—have brought forth deep questions about what combined strength of opponents really means.

Status is even more ambiguous. Who decides which state has status and how is it to be attained or lost? It is all very well to talk about Great Powers exerting society-wide influence, as Arnold Toynbee did, but the question is, which society? And is there something such as ‘society’ upon which any nation can radiate overwhelming influence? After all, the question of the West’s influence is based on an assessment of the ‘Westernisation of the world’, but to what degree was this all-pervasive or was it merely confined to select, vocal elites? Many today would argue the latter and question any essentialist notion of the ‘spread of the West’ or even ‘Western values’.

So, what can India do to facilitate its rise? Can it be a Great Power? And what kind of a Great Power will it be, if it becomes one?

In our lifetime, the world has turned from a U.S.-led universe to a duopoly, a world of America and China. We could yet see India being added to that list. But for India, this would mean a society-wide preparation which ought to have started a decade ago. This preparation means the nurturing of an understanding of what it means to rise to greatness in the world for a nation, and asking if India’s journey would be different from that of America’s or China’s?

India’s journey in the acquisition of material power is a work in progress. To balance this, India has attempted to build narratives of status that derive legitimacy from non-material sources—whether it is anti-colonialism or fighting poverty, and more recently, a renewable energy approach to fighting climate change.

The acquisition of this status is getting more complex because it is increasingly unclear who could legitimately grant the ascension on the status scales—is the United Nations irretrievably compromised? Is the US still a source of any kind of status legitimacy except in some material aspect? Can a European Union that is struggling to keep its flock preach to the world? How can Britain sustain the myth of its own projectionism if—as many suggest would come true sooner rather than later—it is no longer ‘great’ Britain but only little Britain following a Scottish referendum?

India’s challenge, then, is in a sense multifold. It is trying to rise with low material expenditure. Its material resources and economic might is a work in progress, and it is trying to acquire status in a world where the sites that could grant it seem themselves compromised.

This flux is hurdle-filled, and an opportunity. The hurdles are obvious, but the opportunities are not. India has an opportunity to define two critical things: it can define afresh the parameters upon which its rise would be adjudged, and it can have some leeway in finding sites, including by carving new alliances that mix the developed and the developing world (Japan, Oceania, and Africa) from which the legitimacy of its rise can be acquired.

This is the first of a series of essays I intend to write charting an understanding of India’s rise, and I conclude this one by saying that how skillfully India is able to negotiate this new world, where both the parameters and sites giving legitimacy to its rise is in flux, would be the defining aspect of its foreign and economic policy in the next two decades.

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