Some economists calculate that India’s gross domestic product jumped into the top five last quarter as it continued to outgrow every country in Europe—and for that matter most of the rest of the world.
The World Economic Forum in Davos will be another venue for Mr. Modi to push India’s geopolitical agenda to win a more prominent place in the circles that shape the world’s rules and institutions.
“India can’t be a spectator. India doesn’t want to be just a participant,” said Ram Madhav, general secretary of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party at a conference last week. “India wants to be a stakeholder.”
Since taking office in 2015, Mr. Modi has been trying to change the conversation around India. He wants it to be seen as the next China in terms of economic opportunities as well as a bastion of democracy. He is battling perceptions that depict India as a messy democracy, bogged down by poverty at home and the rivalry with its nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan.
The linchpin of this new assertiveness has been the uptick in economic growth that started slowly with reforms in the 1990s but has accelerated over the last decade.
In the Alps, Mr. Modi will be elbow to elbow with President Donald Trump as Mr. Trump and others try to rewrite the rules of globalization.
India’s economic ascent was predicted late last year by The Centre for Economics and Business Research in London. The country’s GDP has been in the top five as measured by purchasing-power parity—which adjusts for domestic prices—and for years it has been much further down the rankings in terms of GDP per capita. But this is the highest its GDP has reached in modern times in terms of current real dollars.
The official numbers won’t be in until the end of February, but it looks as if India leapfrogged the U.K. and France last quarter, a position it will maintain this year, said Doug McWilliams, deputy chairman of the center. The CEBR predicts India will continue to rise in the rankings and become the world’s third largest economy by 2027.
China arrived at No. 5 in 2005 and garnered attention as a top market and manufacturer, its economy becoming a new engine of global growth. While India isn’t a trade-dependent great power, it stands at a similar crossroads today, said Alyssa Ayres, former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia and author of a book published last month, “Our Time Has Come: How India is Making its Place in the World.”
“(Chinese president) Xi Jinping was the talk of the town last year.” she said. “Well, Modi is going to be the big curtain raiser at Davos this year. That’s India saying, ‘We want to be seen here.’”
Since Mr. Modi came to power, India has taken a more muscular stance on the global stage. At the World Trade Organization, it won concessions over India’s food-stockpiling program, and it has joined the International Missile Technology Control Regime, which tries to control missile trade. India was the world’s biggest importers of defense equipment in the five years through 2016, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a Swedish think tank.
Mr. Modi has wooed global leaders, tightened military ties with the U.S. and even backed the creation of the International Day of Yoga.
Last week, he brought Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife to fly kites and visit Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in his home state of Gujarat. He has invited the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations later this month to New Delhi for India’s Republic Day celebrations. Through this projection of soft power, India is already starting to promote its position on Pakistan, its most important geopolitical quandary. It is also strengthening its stance vis-à-vis China, whose rise it wants to emulate but also an increasingly assertive neighbor with which it has border disputes.
India’s endgame, analysts and insiders say, is a role that better reflects its strong economic position. It has long pushed for a seat as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, and it hopes to become part of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which would help it more easily gain access to nuclear fuel and technology. It would also like a greater say in the decisions of other international organizations including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
One of Mr. Modi’s allies in raising India’s profile abroad has been the country’s diaspora, which includes many of the executives of the world’s top companies who will be at Davos. Mr. Modi has activated his supporters among the more than 15 million Indians living around the world.
“You might have realized that in the last three-four years, the perception of India has changed,” he told a gathering earlier this month of powerful Indian expatriates invited to Delhi. “The focus is on us, the world’s attitude towards us is changing. This is the main reason is that India itself is changing. It is transforming itself.”