Will India Start Acting Like a Global Power?

New Delhi’s New Role

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the leaders of the other BRICS countries in Goa, India, October 2016 Danish Siddiqui / REUTERS

The country with the world’s third-largest military by personnel strength, fifth-largest defense budget, and seventh-largest economy isn’t a member of the UN Security Council. It isn’t even a member of the G-7, the exclusive club of major industrialized economies. It is India, a country long regarded as an emerging power rather than a major global player.

In fairness, for years, this assessment was not off the mark, and India’s reality did not match up to its vaunted potential. And indeed, India still faces daunting developmental challenges. It is home to around 270 million people living in extreme poverty. Its infrastructure is in need of major investment—to the tune of $1.5 trillion over a decade, according to India’s finance minister. Discrimination among India’s famously diverse population persists, whether on the basis of gender, caste, religion, or region.

Because of these challenges, and because the country has been kept on the margins of the global institutions central to U.S. diplomacy, India’s impressive economic power and defense capabilities have often gone unnoticed. But that is changing. A more confident India has already begun to shape the global agenda on climate change, clean energy, and worker mobility. And spurred by China’s increasingly assertive regional posture, India has ramped up its own military capacity. 

India has long chafed at the fact that despite its size and its democracy, the world does not see it as a major power. Unlike China, it does not have a coveted permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Considering India’s growing economy and enhanced military capabilities, Indian leaders are pushing for their country’s “due place in global councils,” as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put it. Under the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, India has begun to see itself as a “leading power,” laying overt claim to a new, more central place in the world. 

As India leaves behind some of its old defensiveness on the world stage, a vestige of

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