Staff Q&A/Devesh Kapur

CASI Director Devesh KapurPhoto credit: Mark Stehle

Established in 1992, a year after the Republic of India enacted its historic economic reforms, Penn’s Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) focuses on the contemporary challenges facing the South Asian nation.

Unlike a host of other institutions that dedicate resources to the entire region, CASI Director Devesh Kapur says Penn’s Center is the only U.S. academic research hub devoted specifically to the study of India.

Kapur, also an associate professor of political science at Penn, recently accompanied School of Arts and Sciences Dean Rebecca Bushnell on a trip to India to meet with Penn alumni and observe some of the Center’s ongoing research projects, including one focused on India’s Dalits, historically a socially marginalized group that was at the bottom of India’s former caste system.

Last December, the Center held a Dalit Studies Conference in Philadelphia to evaluate strategies to ensure that Dalit agendas are recognized by and incorporated into mainstream academic dialogue.
“Looking forward, what we’re planning to do is work on entrepreneurship among Dalits, how they can better participate in the market economy,” Kapur says.

Further CASI endeavors include studies on India’s human capital, especially its higher education system, international migration from India and financial remittances, improving the quality of care at Indian hospitals and the country’s Maoist movement. Next year, Kapur says CASI will collaborate with other Penn departments to compare the electoral systems of India and the United States.

The Current sat down with Kapur a few days after he returned to U.S. soil to discuss India’s future as a global superpower, the state of the Indian economy and pending CASI research ventures.

Q. There has been much talk about India emerging as one of the world’s next great superpowers in the next 50 years. Do you envision India becoming a superpower similar to the United States, in which it projects its power around the world, or will it stay out of other countries’ affairs?
A.
I don’t think India will emerge as a superpower. It will be one of the leading powers, but not a superpower in the sense we see with the United States. I don’t see it trying to project its power at the global level, and certainly not in a military sense.
Regionally, yes, [it will] to secure its borders and influence its immediate neighborhood, but not globally, and certainly not in a military way.

Q. Is this because India disapproves of the idea of projecting military power around the world?
A.
First of all, at least in the foreseeable future, it simply doesn’t have those resources. To be able to have that degree of what one might call a military machine, you need incredible resources. The degree of wealth that the United States has is something that in India, even if we were very optimistic, would not occur in the next half century. Second, there is a great deal of diffidence in India about the use of military force. India’s had a lot of terrorist attacks but its actions are usually defensive.

Q. Has the Indian economy suffered as much as ours? And if so, how are they dealing with their financial crisis?
A.
The decline, of course, is affecting everyone. Right now, it’s less severe in India. In the United States, most projections are for negative growth. Clearly it’s a recession. That’s not the case in India. India will have positive growth. But [growth] has been eight to nine percent in the past few years; most projections seem to be that this year it will be somewhere in the region of five percent. So you could say it’s almost half the growth rate, or you could say five percent is still way more than almost any other country other than China. And the reason why India’s not negatively affected is its banking system was more conservative and you did not have as much deregulation, so it was able to survive. It didn’t have as much bad debt, basically, which is the root of the crisis here.

Q. R. Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs, spoke at a November CASI event on “The Future of the U.S.-India Relationship.” What has been the historical relationship between the United States and India?
A.
One of the puzzles always has been why have they not been stronger because India was [one of the few South Asian countries] that was a democracy and had an open society and a shared value system with the U.S. There’s always this puzzle why the U.S. had closer ties with Pakistan, a military dictatorship, and even with China, which is an authoritative country.
The main reason for this distortion was the Cold War. U.S. priorities in containing the Soviet Union took precedence over everything else. And Pakistan was very adept at using the U.S. as being an ally against the Soviet Union, but leveraging that to get greater military resources vis-à-vis India. As that happened, India then drifted a little more closer into the Soviet orbit. Because of India’s economic system and its non-aligned position in the Cold War, it was neither an economic opportunity for U.S. firms, nor a military threat, which I think are the two drivers of U.S. foreign policy. Either you are an Iran or a North Korea or Afghanistan or Iraq—a military threat—or you have a large market—China, when it opens up, and Brazil. Neither was the case [with India]. And all of this began to change in the 90’s when India’s economy began to open up and grow rapidly. And India’s nuclear test also put the U.S. on some notice that they have to take it seriously. Essentially India became both things, and that is what changed. And most importantly, the Cold War has ended.

Q. Has the U.S.-India nuclear agreement helped to bring the two countries closer together?
A.
I wouldn’t say the agreement has brought the two countries together. The agreement is symbolic of closer ties that were emerging in any case. It’s more a symptom than a cause.

Q. What is India’s most pressing problem today? Is it its population, or its economy, or its problems with Pakistan?
A.
I think the single biggest problem is its governance—what one might call the state of the Indian state, the quality of government. And that has to do with very complex political factors.

Q. India’s population is almost as large as China’s. Does the Indian Government view its vast population as a problem?
A.
Publically, no. Populations are always double-edged swords. They’re a tremendous resource, if used widely. They can be a problem if you are not doing enough to improve their wellbeing. You can look in our University neighborhood. Are our neighborhoods a problem or a blessing? If used wisely, they are a blessing for the University. If not, then people say, ‘You have crime.’ People complain.
But they are sides of the same coin. If we help nurture our neighborhoods better, then it’s a huge plus for us. But if we don’t, they’ll haunt us in some ways. You only have to walk at midnight alone to recognize that it can haunt us. It’s the same with the population.
I don’t think the population, per se, is the problem. It’s more of a manifestation of a deeper problem, which is how well you are governing them. It poses, of course, severe challenges in terms of resources: clean water, air, how it will impact India’s contribution to climate change.

Q. CASI has received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to conduct case studies of diaspora/home country interactions. The grant will include case study research examining Mexico, Russia, India and Argentina. When most people think of India, they probably think of Indians, but is India a fairly diverse nation?
A.
India has different ethnic groups. You can call it a multi-national state. If one were to think about India, he could think of it as like the European Union, with twice the size and one-tenth the income.

Q. What research or research areas would you like to see CASI take up in the future?
A.
I think we will be doing more research on the relationship between business and politics in India and more work on India’s human capital and India’s foreign policies.

Originally published Feb. 19, 2009

Originally published on February 19, 2009