India’s Unfinished Journey: A Post-Colonial Quest for Major Power Status from Nehru to Modi

Featured & Cover India’s Unfinished Journey A Post Colonial Quest for Major Power Status from Nehru to Modi

A Post-Colonial Quest

The pursuit of recognition is an intrinsic human trait, and this collective yearning is mirrored in a state’s quest for major-power status. In “The Unfinished Quest: India’s Search for Major Power Status from Nehru to Modi” (“The Quest”) by T.V. Paul, a professor of International Relations at McGill University, the journey of post-colonial India towards global recognition as a major power is thoroughly examined.

Throughout history, states have sought status recognition, traditionally tied to military might. T.V. Paul notes, “Victory in great power wars was the most prominent mechanism through which a state gained or lost status that had already been conferred on it.” This understanding of power was dominant during times when European nations, believing their languages and knowledge systems superior, pursued widespread colonization in Asia and Africa.


Colonization entailed not just political domination but also religious and racial superiority. Paul emphasizes, “Closeness to the Christian religious establishments was the key element in nineteenth-century Europe, based on the ideas of ‘standards of civilization.’” The colonizers’ zeal to establish Christian supremacy in their colonies was a byproduct of their power dynamics.

Following World War II and especially after the USSR’s collapse in 1991, the criteria for power and status recognition expanded beyond military prowess to include economic strength, knowledge, and skills.

“The Quest” is a thorough exploration of India’s ongoing journey to significant global status. The book provides a detailed analysis of India’s political, economic, and strategic ambitions since its 1947 independence. Paul asserts, “No leader since the Nehru era has fundamentally reduced India’s hard-power asset acquisition.”

Hard Power Resources

Paul identifies ten critical components in a nation’s quest for major power status, termed “comprehensive national power capability.” These include four ‘hard-power resources’—military, economy, technology/knowledge, and demographics—and six ‘soft-power resources’—normative position, leadership in international institutions, culture, state capacity, strategy and diplomacy, and effective national leadership. He traces India’s trajectory from the early days under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to current leader Narendra Modi, weaving in internal political dynamics, economic growth, and strategic decisions.

When Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul visited India in 1988 for his book “India: A Million Mutinies Now,” he encountered an India overshadowed by “pietistic Gandhian gloom.” Naipaul noted, “The talk among the talkers in the towns was of degeneracy, a falling away from the standards of earlier times.” This pervasive gloom reflected nearly four decades of unsuccessful Nehruvian socialism.

A Wounded Nation Rises

Centuries of Islamic and British colonization had transformed a historically prosperous and entrepreneurial society into one that was defeated and despondent. Today, however, optimism is sweeping across India. In a post-COVID world marked by inflation, rising food and energy prices, and prolonged conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, Indians are hopeful and eager to restore India’s pre-colonial economic and civilizational prominence.

Economic liberalization in the 1990s, initiated by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, opened up India’s foreign investment markets. Although there were initial successes, economic progress faced hurdles. India’s international status has significantly advanced with nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 and recent Moon and Mars missions.

An Outsider’s Perspective

Despite these achievements, Paul concludes that India’s major power status remains elusive, with an uncertain future. “The Quest” stands out as an academic work but is presented from an outsider’s perspective. During colonial times, non-native Western scholars began to control the intellectual discourse about India. This tradition continues, as illustrated by the critiques from homegrown Marxist/Leftist scholars detailed in Arun Shourie’s book “Eminent Historians: Their Technology, Their Line, Their Fraud.”

Paul mentions “caste” and “Hindutva” in “The Quest” but does not provide a framework for assessing India’s status quest on these parameters. Historically, “jati” (caste) has been part of Indian society, which has remained prosperous and knowledge-producing. The term ‘Hindutva’ is often used to demonize India’s assertive Hindu majority, as Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee argue, “raises the spectre of Hindutva to scare off critics.”

India’s Statecraft

Paul critiques the “religious-nationalist coloration” in naming India’s weapons systems with “Sanskrit/Hindu mythological terms,” while overlooking ‘panchsheela,’ misspelled as ‘panschila’ in his book. He also refers to India’s “founding fathers,” although India is a civilizational nation not founded by a group of men in 1947.

Notably, Paul’s work omits significant concepts like Dharma and Kautilya. Dharma, the core Hindu philosophy of righteous deeds, underpins Hindu cosmology. Kautilya, a 4th-century BCE Indian scholar, is known for the Arthashastra, a foundational text on statecraft. Arshid Iqbal Dar states, “Kautilya’s realism is there in the DNA of India’s strategic culture and has been the default strategy for South Asia.” Yet, “The Quest” lacks references to these critical elements.

Overall, “The Quest” is an excellent academic examination of India’s journey, though it is presented through a 19th/20th-century colonial-Western narrative that overlooks native perspectives.

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