India has had a stable democracy for its entire existence and an enviable economic growth rate for decades now. As the country spends lavishly on its military, it's important to ask why it consistently fails to reduce human deprivation.

In May 2014, immediately after coming to power, the Narendra Modi government increased India’s defence budget to $38 billion, a 12 per cent increase from the 2013-14 fiscal year. Mr. Modi also announced a plan to spend $250 billion to upgrade the country’s military over the coming decade.

For the last five years, India has consistently topped the list of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s biggest arms importers. 

In April 2017, India signed deals worth $2 billion to buy advanced surface-to-air missile systems from Israel, and later in November sealed a $750 million deal with the United States to buy 145 ultra-light howitzers. Recently, India signed a $8.7 billion deal with France to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets.

The sharp increase in arms spending has come alongside Mr. Modi’s aggressive international campaign to realign India’s strategic posturing and to assert its claim as a global power. Since taking office, Mr. Modi has travelled abroad 53 times to more than 40 countries.

The need for strengthening material instruments of national security is a priority for every nation-state, in response to both real and imagined threats. With China and Pakistan in its neighborhood, one could argue that India’s moves are certainly justified. And this is largely the current consensus among the elite, both within and outside the state's structure.

But India is not merely trying to ensure its national security, it is trying to embark on a bigger project - to become a global power, a project that needs a much larger scale of resources to be dedicated to it. 

This is where India’s ambitions are misplaced. The gap between the magnitude of its underlying human suffering and its ambitions for power make a mockery of the promises of democracy. India’s case is unique in this regard.

Over 270 million Indians continue to live in extreme poverty. The country is home to one quarter of the world’s undernourished population, over a third of the world’s underweight children, and nearly a third of the world’s food-insecure people.

In 2016, India ranked 97th on the Global Hunger Index, almost at par with North Korea, and behind Mali, Guinea and the Republic of Congo. Millions of the country’s children — 38 percent — under the age of five are stunted or suffer from chronic malnutrition.

According to the World Food Programme, at its current rate, India will achieve the current stunting rate of Ghana by 2030 and that of China by 2055.

Since 1995, more than a quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide, and the numbers continue to rise. 

Last August, at least 60 children died overnight at a hospital in northern India due to the lack of oxygen supply to the hospital. There are only nine hospital beds per 10,000 in India, compared with 41 per 10,000 in China.

These statistic perhaps reflect only part of the true picture, and they hardly tell us anything about the consequences of chronic poverty in the lives of individuals and families. Its consequences can be life-denying.

How does India define development?

Two things are unique about India’s large-scale human suffering. First, it continues to exist within the context of a country that has been a democracy for more than seventy years. Second, that context has been the world’s second fastest growing economy for more than twenty years now.

In the history of world development, there is hardly any example of an economy growing so fast and for so long and yet failing to achieve so little in terms of reducing human deprivation.

For a long time, India blamed its poverty on Nehruvian economic policies, and colonial legacies that plagued its economic growth and, therefore, the state’s ability to deliver on promises. But things changed after India settled into an era of liberalisation. The GDP growth rate over the past two decades has been between 6 and 8 percent, bringing large sums of money to the government treasury.

Economic security and social justice are two essential entitlements of democratic rule. The Preamble of India’s Constitution also commits itself to securing for all citizens a life of equality and dignity. For how long can a democracy afford to fail on this promise? 

More importantly, can it afford to deny economic and social justice to a vast multitude of its citizens by diverting a disproportionate amount of resources to amassing instruments of military power? Can the ambitions of power be misplaced?

Certainly, there have been achievements too. Millions have been lifted out of poverty in the last two decades. India also has some of world’s most extensive welfare schemes in place. But the scale of the deprivation is so large and the growth process so biased, that the country, as Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze put it in their An Uncertain Glory, is increasingly looking like “islands of California in a sea of Sub-Saharan Africa.”

The new and sudden rush to acquiring instruments of war has come on the back of belligerent Hindu nationalism that has gripped the country ever since Mr. Modi began his campaign in the 2014 national election.

After he was elected, many members of his party and government have continued their inflammatory nationalist propaganda, calling for the need to challenge China, and for greater assertion on a global scale.

The national media has largely towed the line, at times being wild in its calls to ‘teach Pakistan a lesson’ and to anyone who challenges the nationalist narrative within the country. 

The mode of the majority is no different: individuals who critique Mr. Modi’s policies are trolled on social media, sometimes with venomous invectives and death threats.

This is indeed a dangerous trend. It has already provoked some shocking violence, particularly the lynchings and public floggings of the members of minority groups on the pretext of eating beef. 

Given the region’s history, communal violence has the potential to get out of hand. Global historical precedents of inflammatory propaganda provoking largescale violence are rife: from the very first violent acts of aggressive nationalism and the Wars of the French Revolution sparked by an outpouring of wild propaganda in France’s newly free press; the Hutu “hate radio” stations; and Slobodan Milosevic’s use of television to fill Serbs with hate. 

However, one hopes that the trend in India will be tamed by its deeper democratic, secular and pluralistic values enshrined in its constitution and in many segments of society.

But still, the question of what priorities the Indian state is setting for itself is a worrisome one. So many lives are at stake. The danger with aggressive nationalism – particularly one that is exclusivist and based on a deep-rooted condescension for a defined other – is that peripheral social issues are turned into the most pressing political issues.

Social conditions that need urgent political attention, such as different sources of human deprivation, can disappear entirely from public debate. Indeed, over the last two years, issues around the cow, sacred to Hindus, and the eating of beef have become the most intense public debates in India, at times making you cringe over the lack of reason in the entire landscape.

India had a great opportunity to consolidate on the dividends of two decades of growth—address deep social and economic inequalities, strengthen its institutions, and build new ones that could order its chaotic growth in the right direction.

It already possessed the structures of political institutions that Samuel Huntington long ago argued are fundamental to make economic growth meaningful. The resources could be used to strengthen the parameters of institutional strength—enforceability and stability. Once this was achieved, India could then make a more valid claim to the status of global power.

But with rising Hindu nationalism, this opportunity seems to increasingly be squandered. Belligerent Hindu nationalism, with the writ of the government behind it, is more focused on reviving the “glories of the past”. It is elevating the interests of Hindu unity and homogeneity to the status of the supreme value before which all other considerations must yield.

Policies like demonetisation seem to be driven more by populist utopian fantasties than by economic realism. There is now an increasing consensus that Mr. Modi’s demonetisation has hit India’s poor hard, perhaps sending millions back into destitution.

Amartya Sen had termed the move as “despotic” and that it clearly violated the promises of a democracy based on trust. 

Early last year, India’s Health Ministry set up a committee to consider replacing animal-origin gelatin capsules with “vegetarian” capsules. Such policies are hardly based on scientific logic. The logic is ideological.

One will have to wait and see whether India’s democratic credentials can succeed in taming the ambitions of Hindu nationalism. Without social and economic justice, democracy risks becoming a meaningless charade.

India’s achievements fall way short of what its constitution promises, they fall short of the rights of equal citizenship that dignify democracy over all other forms of governance. 

Power, that stems from its validation by others, cannot merely rest on stockpiles of weapons. It must evolve out of a nation-state’s prosperous socioeconomic base. India is yet to achieve that and getting there should be its priority - not amassing instruments of military power.

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