Power and Power Status in International Relations
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Power and Power Status in International Relations

Reflections on India as a Rising Power

By Sindhu Dinesh
Post Graduate Research Scholar, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations,
Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India

Reflections on India as a Rising Power


‘International Politics, like all politics, is a struggle for Power’, a well-known remark by Hans J Morgenthau. The concept of ‘Power’ is at the core of International Relations, interpreted in various forms, Power is the instrument employed by nations to fulfill their national interest. As much as Power can be the ‘means to an end’; for many countries, power is an end in itself. In defining a nation-state, a primordial component is the nature and strength of power it possesses.

India’s power status in the international system has been addressed with a plethora of terms like ‘bridging power’, ‘ambivalent power’, ‘rising power’, ‘emerging power’, ‘responsible power’, ‘balancing power’, ‘regional power’, ‘major power’ and so on. Some of the factors underpinning these descriptions include India’s growing economy, acceptance by the international community, stable democracy, military capability, political influence, behavioral pattern in negotiations and its overall growth trajectory. Another major reason for the various ‘typologies of power’ assigned to India is that India itself has exhibited great power aspirations as well as has demonstrated equally tremendous indigenous capability in important sectors.

All of the descriptions on the power associated with India essentially imply its ‘rising power status’. It was first referred to as Rising Power, when in March 2005, Condoleezza Rice, then US Secretary of State, said that, “India is emerging not just as a regional power but as a global power.” In July 2006, while urging the US Congress on a deal with India, she remarked that “as a rising global power, India can be a pillar of stability in a rapidly changing Asia and a strategic partner for the United States”. Since then, India has been described by various connotations of power and in the field of International Relations several works have come up exploring the concept and dimensions of the concept of ‘Rising Power’.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and current External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar have both on various occasions expressed that India aspires to be a ‘Leading Power’ and not just a balancing power. Ashley Tellis in his work states that a ‘leading power’ essentially influences issues but cannot determine outcomes especially against the inclination of great powers. Thus, a leading power is a system shaper, unlike great powers which are system makers. The author argues that India is not yet a leading power. For it to achieve the same, it would need to make reforms to the foundations of its economy, measures to ensure the robustness of its state mechanisms and improve its military capabilities.

India has often been widely identified as an emerging power. Indian scholars like Rajesh Rajagopalan and Varun Sahni have described great powers as ones which have system shaping capabilities as well as intentions. They define middle powers as countries that lack system shaping capabilities but whose resources, size, location, and role predominantly ensure that they are always considered by the great powers and not ignored. They argue that India has shifted from being a middle power or intermediate state to an emerging power that is defined as nations that are growing and have the willingness and capacity to maneuver through their path to the great power position. As an emerging power with great power aspirations, India has been trying to undercut the intensity of stubborn hostility that it has encountered from the majority of the countries in its neighborhood. Xenia Dormandy argues that as a norm setter India is an extremely valuable nation in the international system. However, it is yet to gradually transition and takes seriously the aspect of burden-sharing in the international environment. Whereas Deepa Ollapally observes that by combining its state identity of strategic autonomy, civilizational exceptionalism, secular democracy, and its evolving international role; India is well-positioned to play the role of a ‘bridging power’ more effectively. The bridging role played by India is more integrative today as compared to being an oppositional role like in the non-aligned era. However, India continues to be an ambivalent power in Asia which it must discard at a quick pace. Yet, India is being understood as a confident and purposive actor set to take its place among the world's major powers.

Other scholars like Eswaran Sridharan describe three parameters for regional power. All three are not mutually exclusive. These include – a country can be considered a regional power by consent, i.e. acceptance in the regional countries as a leader, secondly by virtue of having power compulsion over its neighbors and thirdly, by virtue of its size. India however, would remain as yet a middle power and with an increase in the world economy and sustained domestic political stability, possibilities for India as a rising power would open up. At the backdrop of China’s rise, India’s ascent towards great-power status has been one of the dramatic developments in the international system. Despite not having an advanced industrial economy or broad military reach, India has utilized political influence and expectations of future performance as major foreign policy tools to augment its rise. India has also actively engaged in its extended neighborhood to build on its established role as a local power in its immediate neighborhood region. 

Stating limitations in the existing definitions of great power, Manjeet Pardesi provides a threefold criterion for great power which includes – security-related and economic interests outside a home region, requisite capabilities, and demand for the status to be accepted by other great powers and regional states. He argues that from this perspective India has achieved great power as it meets these requirements in Southeast Asia and therefore, is a nation capable of shaping regional order. 

Nevertheless, there are also scholars who have differing opinions. Bharat Karnad in his work ‘Why India is Not a Great Power? (Yet?) explored the pre-requisites for great power. Some of these include a driving vision, a sense of national destiny, clearly defined national interests, the willingness of the country to employ coercion and force as the means to achieve its interests, and the use of hard as well as soft power. Taking note of the several achievements that India takes pride in, he states that although all of these laurels accord India global recognition, it does not translate into major power status. Evidently, in one of his latest articles, he noted India to be ‘a middling power of little real consequence’. In his opinion, ‘India seems to be steadfastly marching in place and getting nowhere fast’. Amruta Naralikar argues that the element of ‘greatness’ has more often than not been thrust upon India. The nation, however, is yet to achieve greatness. According to her, the nature of India’s rise to power is intertwined with its hesitation to proactively share the burden of providing global public goods.

While these are the debates on India’s rising power status among the scholars and academic circles in International Relations; it would be interesting to explore further whether gaining acceptance in the neighborhood is a pre-condition for a rising power? How does India’s immediate neighborhood perceive its Rise? Do the neighboring countries think of India’s Rise as a benefit or a threat? Are there only perceptions, or also misperceptions that exist on India’s Rise in its immediate neighborhood? These are some of the questions that should be further explored.

About the Author:

Sindhu Dinesh (ORCID: 0000-0002-0691-5784) is a Post Graduate Research Scholar in the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka. Research interest areas include Geopolitics of South Asia and India’s relations in the Neighbourhood.

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.