Remarks at the launch of the India Poll 2013
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Remarks at the launch of the India Poll 2013

On 20 May 2013, International Security Program Director launched the India Poll 2013 at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. The full text of his remarks is included below.

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Executive Summary

Minister for Information and Broadcasting Shri Manish Tewari, Sanjoy Joshi, Chairman Robert Johansen, Professor Amitabh Mattoo, Samir Saran, Dr Raja Mohan and other distinguished colleagues, guests and friends.

It is with a certain sense of reluctance and perspective that I offer the findings of this opinion survey to you today. And a sense of respect and appreciation that India is generally the kind of country where you can ask ordinary people the sorts of questions we did in this poll, and they will answer, and you can have a forthright public conversation about the answers.

I am not Indian – though some of my friends and readers sometimes wonder about that – and it may seem presumptuous for a foreigner, let alone one from a nation of just 23 million people, to come to Delhi to tell you something about what the people of the world’s largest democracy think about the world and their future in it.

One survey does not contain all the answers, and I will be the first to acknowledge the limitations of opinion polling, even when conducted as professionally as this one has been. This was a representative opinion survey based on 1233 face-to-face interviews across the country. Yes, it has a margin of error, 3.6 percent.

But this still means that what we have today is an exceptional, valuable window onto Indian attitudes towards the world of the 21st century.

As the originator and director of this research, I will confine myself principally to presenting some of the key findings – some predictable, some surprising – and offering a few thoughts about their context.  Professor Mattoo, whose institute had enough faith to give this project significant funding support, and with whom I am pleased to have collaborated on the first effort to interpret the results, will take things further in a moment. He will offer some thoughts on what all this means for Indians policymakers, and the opportunities for enlightened foreign policy action that this data illuminates.

Now it is often said that for a nation of a billion or more people, India’s foreign policy is made and implemented by a very small minority indeed. And I for one would venture the view that for India to succeed and rise in the world, it will need to continue the process that has begun – of opening up foreign policy to larger constituencies, to harness a wider array of India’s great talents for this cause, whether this means a larger foreign service or a larger role for business, think-tanks, the diaspora, state governments and so on.

If this poll proves one thing, it is that Indians from right across the society of this extraordinary democracy are interested in the world and India’s destiny in it.

Yes, there are some interesting demographic breakdowns to some of our answers – for instance, wealthier and more educated Indians tend to be more interested in India becoming more like developed democracies such as Japan, Australia and America. And south Indians are somewhat more trusting towards the outside world than their north Indian compatriots.  

But on most issues there is surprisingly little difference in the trends about what Indians think, among women and men, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, urban and rural.

In other words, this poll shows that India really is a cohesive nation and there really is such a thing as an Indian worldview.

Now some of the headlines from today’s event are already obvious – you’ve seen The Hindu this morning – and I want you all of course to read the findings in full, but here are some of the most striking snapshots of that worldview.

What do Indians like? Among other things, most like America, their military and their democratic rights. What do they feel troubled by? Among other things, Pakistan, China and scarcity of energy, food and water.

What do they want? Their government to do something about their problems – from advancing their interests in the world to maintaining social harmony, fighting corruption and making the economy grow.

This poll provides stark and sometimes startling insights into the hopes and fears of Indians.

With Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visiting India this week, the poll illustrates in particular the depth of Indian popular mistrust towards Asia’s other giant – 83% of Indians consider China a threat to their nation’s security, for a range of familiar reasons. Even so, 63% would like relations with China to improve.

It might be argued that it is easy to obtain extreme results like this, an 83 percent threat perception, if you ask the questions are certain way. I am not so sure, because on other questions in this poll, the answers are nuanced indeed.

For instance, forget stereotypes about Indians having an excess of national pride. It turns out that many instead have a sense of perspective, realism, even humility about their nation and its reputation. Only 23% of the poll respondents say they think India receives less respect from other countries than it deserves – while 36% think it receives too much.

Turning to the economy, there is a surprising level of confidence in the economy, at least over the medium term. Despite the marked slowing in the GDP growth rate, 74% of Indians are optimistic about prospects for their economy over the next five years.

But Indians are divided about whether the fruits of growth are being justly distributed: while a small majority (56%) of Indians see themselves as economically better off than five years ago, about 18% feel worse off and 27% do not think their economic situation has changed.

And most Indians see major problems looming. Shortages of energy, water and food, along with climate change, register as the most important challenges, with 80-85% of Indians rating these issues as ‘big threats’ to their country’s security. Other issues rated as big threats by large majorities of Indians include possible war with Pakistan (77%), home-grown terrorism (74%), foreign jihadist attacks (74%), possible war with China (73%) and a continuing Maoist insurgency (71%).

The data reveals some clear preferences in how Indians feel about other countries.

Indians are better disposed towards the United States than towards any other foreign country. Asked to rate their feelings towards 22 other countries, Indians rank the United States first, then Singapore, Japan and Australia. Indians feel warmer towards these countries than those in the so-called BRICS group with which India is often seen to share diplomatic or economic interests: Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa.

In fact, 78% of Indians think it would be better if Indian government and society worked more like the United States – an intriguing result in this age of sequestration, policy deadlock and bitter partisanship – while about 60% think the same about Australia, Japan and Singapore, well ahead of other countries.

And three-quarters of Indians want ties with the United States to strengthen further – even though 31% see America as a security threat. (Only 9% see that threat as a major one.)

Indians also know what they think when it comes to the instruments for their country’s success in the world: 95% percent of people see the possession of a strong military as ‘very important to achieve foreign policy goals’, while only 68% feel the same way about their external affairs ministry. Most Indians also believe that India’s image in the world (78%), wise political leadership (78%), strong political leadership (75%) and nuclear weapons (79%) are very important.

Interestingly, the results suggest pressure on the traditions of non-alignment and strategic autonomy: 72% of Indians attach great importance to India having strong countries as partners.

Still, some things do not change: an overwhelming majority (94%) of Indians see Pakistan as a threat, citing terrorism as a major reason. Other reasons identified include a belief that the Pakistani army sees India as its enemy, that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and that it claims sovereignty over Kashmir.

Even so, 89% of Indians agree that ordinary people in both countries want peace and 87% agree that a big improvement in India-Pakistan relations requires courageous leadership on both sides. Professor Mattoo will have more to say on this I suspect.

But with Premier Li’s visit, the relationship of the moment is India-China, and the poll suggests that China faces a publicly diplomacy challenge of Himalayan proportions – worsened by recent tensions on the border. The opinion poll suggests that wariness about China’s rise is not just the supposed paranoia of India’s strategic elite – it is a view widely held among Indian citizens.

Most Indians who see China as a security threat indicate multiple reasons for this mistrust, including China’s possession of nuclear weapons, competition for resources in third countries, China’s efforts to strengthen its relations with other countries in the Indian Ocean region (where 94% want India to have the strongest navy), and the border dispute. Although China has become India’s largest trading partner, only 31% of Indians agree that China’s rise has been good for India. 

But in responding to China’s rise, most Indians are hedging their bets in every sense: 65% agree India should join other countries to limit China’s influence yet a similar number (64%) agree that India should cooperate with China to play a leading role in the world. 

Most Indians are unlikely to compromise, though, on their own democracy. For all its faults, 70% of Indians consider it preferable to any other kind of government, and at least 95% support the right to a fair trial, the right to free expression and the right to vote, while 87% support the right to a media free from censorship.

Still, Indians do seem to share the feelings of the Chinese people about one thing – corruption. An overwhelming 96% think corruption is holding India back, while 94% think corruption has worsened in the past five years, 94% think reducing it should be a priority for governments and 80% think civil society campaigners have made India a better place.

Now I am the guest here, and I have said enough. Before I go, some acknowledgements. The Australia India Institute, for its partnership, support and patience in seeing this project through, all the way back to a funding application back in 2010.

I want to acknowledge the hard work, the diligence and professionalism of GfK mode, the Lowy Institute’s chosen polling company here in India, whose workers did the hard yards, interviewing 1233 people face to face across India late last year.

Finally, let me convey my sincere gratitude to the Observer Research Foundation for convening this gathering, on a day when we obviously have rather high-level competition for the attention of the nation’s opinion makers. I recommend this poll to you all and I hope it plays its part as a contribution, however modest, to an India that is fully engaged with the world.

Areas of expertise: Indo-Pacific strategy; Australian security and foreign policy; Australia’s key security relationships including the Quad; strategic impacts of the rise of China and India; maritime security; nuclear issues