The Collapsing Third Pole

By Lt Gen P R Shankar (Retd)


Followup Reflections on  Governance by The Unelected @

The leadership mantra

When the problem is ignored,
The problem becomes the leader and,
The leader becomes the problem

…The WhatsApp University of Wisdom

In 2001, China was only slightly ahead of India on most metrics. Both were rising middle powers in the unipolar world of USA. China was expected to be the second pole in about a quarter of a century. It was also predicted that India would be the growing third pole despite everything. There was vibrancy in the air. The economy was galloping.  The third pole was indeed rising. In 2007 the subprime crisis happened. Financial contagion wreaked havoc. By 2008, major economies were tottering. In 2009, I was at the National Defence College , listening to experts dissecting this phenomenon , wondering where India was headed. At that time, the Chief of the US Army addressed the course. He mentioned in admiration that the Indian economy had withstood the global meltdown shocks  and was posting impressive figures. I felt proud. The third pole was on track.

Circa 2021. The third pole is tottering. Last year there was I would have said – sorry.  No chance. We had just stopped China in its tracks. The mood was upbeat. The Virus was in recession. We might have had issues on our bumpy economic course but we would get there eventually. However now I see an imminent collapse while China is the second pole. Why have I changed my mind?

Last year we had to contend with the China’s  Virus on one hand and its military  aggression on the other. We handled both well but we had to spend out of proportion on all fronts. The situation demanded so. By the end of 2020, we were a war torn economy, but recovering. However, the second wave has hit us harder than our imagination. It is going to take a long time recovering out of it. Why? The deadly wave, magnified in time and space, by sheer negligence and greed, will persist to impose longterm compounding costs. We  are looking at a war torn economy compounded by another self-imposed one. It has also brutally exposed the various facets of our governance and comprehensive national power structure.  Can we recover? We will recover. However we might not be the third pole. Unless…we will talk about it…honestly…no holds barred…

Before I wade into the issues which will pull us down, there are opportunities still on the table.  They can bail us out if we play our cards well. In fact, this article is all about – What is going for us, what is not going for us and what will go for us eventually.

What is Going For Us

Seven  factors dictate the fact that India can continue to rise. First. The rest of the world is also down and not really that far ahead. Most of us are in the same leaky boat. Second. China’s aggressive rise has instilled an all pervasive dread that it has to be reined in. In this context India is the only alternative to China in scale and strength. India knows how to handle China better than most. Containing China without a progressive India is well nigh impossible. The world needs India to succeed. Third. China might seem to be running ahead of the pack. However it still runs the risk of falling victim to its own creation – the Virus. Its aging and shrinking population places limits on its rise. Fourth. India has an indispensable ‘frontline’ location in the current geostrategic construct. Fifth. India is a civilizational power coming out of the dark days of colonial subjugation. Its civilisation values, unless diluted, can restitute it to its original form. Sixth. No one can keep a young nation of 1.3 billion people down (except itself). Seventh. The world knows what to expect from India, despite all its pitfalls. There is a trust and reliability factor. Let us now see what is not going for us.

What is Not Going For Us

The period 2009-2014 was one of governance by remote control, which squandered all the gains of the past decade. Corruption and scams compounded poor governance. The architect of our reforms and rise stood miserably silent as India nosedived. It was against this backdrop that the present Government was voted to power. Never before in our history has a party and its leader been voted with so much expectation, promise or goodwill. Bold reforms were  expected to propel  our nation to its preordained greatness. That was the promise. Everyone wanted the government to succeed. It was voted back to power a second time with an even greater expectation and trust, despite  a very patchy record. We believed that it was a matter of time before we became the third pole. However. It is now seven years in the saddle for the government. For those of us who still believed in ‘Ache Din’ dreams, the Virus is an eyeopener. All scales are off. Time to shift blame on someone else is over. Realities of this  government’s creation are stark. Against this backdrop, where do our Comprehensive National Power elements stand?

We see a litany of poorly executed reforms, failed to perfection. Demonetisation’s serpentine queues and GST’s botched roll out, heralded our economic decline. It broke our unorganised but resilient ‘Chai Pakora’ economy. The persistent Chinese Virus will now devour it . If we get back to pre-pandemic economic levels (in two years) we should thank our gods. Manufactured metrics and grandiose imagery will not cover stalled growth on ground. The CAA,  NRC and Farm laws might have been well intentioned, but unimplementable and socially divisive. As bad as the well intentioned erstwhile ‘Mandal Commission’. Good leadership? Where is that? When ministers can only tweet about the greatness of a leader, who is in extended absentia, during a monumental national crisis; it reflects a fawning lack of intellectual capability  and talent, in policy and execution. A man might singlehandedly govern or campaign continuously. Not both. That is amply clear. The result. Political  consensus could not be generated even when the country was under attack by China. Despite our potential, entreaties and supplication no one has significantly relocated from China to invest in an ailing India. Our political capital has badly eroded. From the times of St Antony to now , the underfunded defence firmament has not reformed or modernised. Barring the short period when Mr Manohar Parrikar was the Defence Minister, our Politico – Bureaucratic – Military leadership has been inept. Atmanirbharta in defence is a chest thumping ‘over the horizon’ chimera. If we are still a tough military, it is due to the apolitical customs and traditions ingrained over seven decades. Politicisation and  attempts to dilute the ‘last bastion’s’ established systems in the garb of ‘Indigenisation’ is like setting your own house on fire. I will write separately on this issue. Make no mistake. Our military power is eroding. Our diplomatic showcasing has had very few takers due to fundamental weaknesses in economy, politics, governance and military. The Virus has brutally exposed a few other broken things which we always knew about. The bureaucracy has lived up to its reputation of constantly failing the nation. It failed during riots, tsunamis, earthquakes , floods and now the Virus. Our courts have passed unimplementable orders. Our institutions stand compromised almost without exception. Unfortunately, we have very poor or no political alternatives at national level. Even discounting  the Chinese Virus, we were slowly going down the pole.

India’s best bet was to hedge the second wave like it did the first wave through anticipation and enforced discipline of lockdowns. We definitely could not have stopped the deadly second wave. However we could have softened its blow. Unfortunately our leadership was complicit in enhancing it through election rallies and kumbh mela. They were aided and abetted by an incompetent bureaucracy. The damning thing is that, facts and figures were massively fudged and reality wilfully suppressed. Well, its gruesomeness is now surfacing through death, ever burning pyres, bodies in rivers and shallow mass graves.  The failure of governance and policies to ensure that hospitals, medicines and oxygen would be available is reflected in the  black marketers and hoarders who have prospered at the cost of the state and robbed the people of their life savings between the ambulances and hearses. Much of this could have been hedged through timely and well planned vaccination. However, the states, of our nation with the highest capacity of vaccine production in the world ,are forced to float global tenders for vaccines competitively. Imagine the monumentality of the failure. This is a man-made disaster if there was ever one. The unseen death and destruction in the countryside is estimated to be 3 to 10 times more than that officially released. That puts India in the same league of China’s failed policies  which led to the man-made famine of  Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’. When success happens, it is due to the great leadership. Failure is offloaded to ‘system failure’ and ‘federal structure’. That is plain running away from the situation.

There might be foreign conspiracy. There might be bioterror. There might be N number of explanations and excuses. The reality is – a Virus on the loose, unprecedented death of people, deprived livelihood of the marginalised,  prolonged mental agony of those who have lost their near and dear, and a withering economy. All elements of our comprehensive national power. You cannot fight the earlier without overcoming the latter. Hence. What do you fight and with what agenda? A million dollar choice for my professed leaders who need to stop living in an alternate reality.

What Will Go For Us

From here on, we can descend into chaos or pull things around. Can we really pull things around? Possible. All our opportunities to be the third pole are still intact. However it needs leadership of a very high moral calibre. Everything falls in place with good leadership. Leaders need to accept that there is a problem and shed image building exercises. Images and narratives will fail like ‘Shining India’ did. Images of the ‘dead’ are powerful to kill narratives. We neither need the Harvard or Cambridge nor the Haridwar or the Kochi schools of thought. We need a  syncretic Indian outlook based on civilisational values of inclusiveness. Get some earthy and solid intellectual content into governance and side line ‘cheerleading’. Decentralise through competence and trust. Build consensus across the political spectrum  with honesty of purpose transparently. Generate trust and faith in the environment. Reform systems to perform. Reach out to the people with humility. It is people who can and will resurrect the pole. Invest in them. Internal strength is more important than an international image. Be the ‘Change’ and effect it.

If not?

Wait for the next PV Narasimha Rao to resurrect.


-The writer was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda