The massive, cascading power outages that left the northern half of India in the dark for two days last week bring to mind a telling juxtaposition of events in mid-1998. India had just concluded a momentous series of nuclear weapon tests, code-named “Operation Shakti” in reference to the Hindu concept of divine power. The action unambiguously propelled the country into the small fraternity of nations bearing nuclear arms, causing Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to boast “We have a big bomb now.” Yet at the same time, New Delhi was in the grip of sweltering summer heat and rolling blackouts. At his wit’s end, the municipal official in charge of electricity declared the power situation to be beyond his control and in the hands of God. He too, it seemed, was looking for some Shakti.
Fourteen years on, the continued development of its strategic arsenal is a source of national pride and part of India’s resume as a great power in the making. In recent months, the country has tested a long-range nuclear missile capable of striking targets deep within China and is reportedly on the verge of producing a submarine-launched ballistic missile – feats that only a very elite club of countries can replicate.
Yet the enduring inability to provide adequate amounts of electricity to its growing economy is a constant source of embarrassment, negating whatever reputational gains the nuclear weapons program has achieved. India may not be much of a factor at the Olympic Games in London, but it has now set a world-class record for the largest blackouts in human history – an exploit that is likely to stand for quite some time. The Economic Times, a leading business daily, succinctly summed things up with a front-page article titled “Superpower India: R.I.P.” while NDTV, a major news channel, broadcast an hour-long program called “Powerless Superpower: Are India’s superpower dreams a joke?” Compounding the chagrin is that the country was forced to turn to tiny Bhutan, essentially an Indian protectorate, for emergency allotments of power. Perhaps the only consolation – and this is not saying much at all– is that Pakistan’s power situation is no better off. Continue reading