[The riff below is based on the "Can India become a great power?" cover and accompanying editorial and article in the latest Economist...the Economist line is summarized in the concluding graf: "That India can become a great power is not in doubt. The real question is whether it wants to." By that, the Economist means that India has to decide whether it wants to jettison an outdated philosophy of non-alignment and semi-pacifism in favor of a culture that supports an active security policy aligned with the West and democratic values.
A value competition line on India (AKA what I might write if I ran the Economist, which fortunately for all concerned I don't) follows...]
That India can become a great power is in serious doubt. Given its distinctive and valuable history and culture, whether it should want to become a great power is also open to question.
First, as to whether India can become a great power. A requisite of a contemporary great power is a high level of discipline and efficiency on the part of its people in their work, including if necessary the projection of force against other nations. India for all its pockets of economic excellence and military proficiency is a very considerable distance away from the driven, disciplined culture of work that one sees in the West and in East Asia. Whether we will see South Asia in the coming century transformed by the rise of a South Asian moral equivalent to the individualist, Calvinist work ethic of the West or to the different but also hard-driving work ethic of East Asia is a fascinating question. It would be incautious to assume a yes answer. If the answer turns out be no, India will not become a great power.
Second, there are serious grounds from an Indian perspective, and also from an international one, for wondering whether great power status for India is the right future for the country. India has a culture and a history of exceptional richness in philosophy, religion, and the arts. Relatedly or not, it also has a history dating back for millennia of being the conquered, not the conquerer. Indian armies have not swept out from the heartland to conquer Persia or central Asia; the pattern has always been the reverse. Finally, it also has a long history, like all other parts of the world, of agricultural toilers and elites alike who for millennia have worked with less than the driven, shame and guilt-driven intensity that marks workers and elites in the contemporary West and East Asia.
It is entirely possible that the right answer for India going forward does involve its becoming a work culture like that of the West and East Asia. If it does so, great power status will follow. But is also entirely possible that the right answer is that India should become a great non-great power. Given its distinctive culture and history and size, India has more potential than any other nation in the world to become an exemplar of a 21st century alternative to the productivity-driven ethos of the West and East Asia.
In the end, it may well be right from the perspective of India that Indian culture transform itself into a driven, Calvinist one like that of the West and East Asia. From an international perspective, though, the case is less clear. The world can benefit from a competition of values in which not all nations are driven by the same values and follow the same paths. It would in many ways be wonderful to welcome India along with China to the ranks of the world's work-driven societies and great powers. But even as that would make both India and the world a richer place, it would also in one important way make the world a poorer place. The gods above us and within us who counsel a remorseless duty to produce--the God of Calvin and the secular gods of the Meiji Restoration--are worth respect. But so too are the gods above us and within us--the jovial Ganesh, the transcendant Rama, the oppositional Shiva--of a culture that supports different, less remorselessly driven, ways of living.