March 24, 2024

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Hello! Today, we’re exploring a global superpower-in-waiting: India, which is grappling with economic, environmental and cultural divides, as it gears up for the largest election in history.

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Poll vault

Next month polls will open in what is set to be the largest democratic exercise in human history, with more than 900 million eligible voters for India’s 2024 election. Most likely to take victory is incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has served as India’s head of state for the last decade, and seems odds-on to secure a rare third consecutive term — in part due to his tight grip on the country’s institutions and crackdown on opposition, but also because of the country’s booming economy.

Few leaders can claim that 75%+ of their electorate approve of the job they’re doing — Modi is one of them. Indeed, with its ever-expanding labor force, revitalized stock market, and booming export industry, India is all but assured to be a global superpower for decades to come. However, Modi’s Amrit Kaal (golden age) is not without its shadows: Modi’s rule has become more authoritarian, divisions remain between rural and urban populations, and environmental concerns have only become more fraught.

Smoke signals

One of India’s most pressing environmental issues is air quality. A global report from air monitoring firm IQAir, published last week, found that a stunning 83 of the 100 worst polluted cities in the world are in India, with Delhi named as the most polluted capital city having averaged a PM2.5 of 102.1 µg/m3 in 2023.

While Bangladesh and Pakistan were named as the most and second-most polluted nations overall, India was third, with an annualized average concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) measuring 54.4 µg/m3 last year — more than 10x the WHO guideline of 5 µg/m3.


Like so many other countries that develop quickly, much of India’s air problem comes from vehicular exhausts, burning fossil fuels, construction dust, and industrial emissions.

In Delhi, a sprawling metropolitan city of tens of millions of people, an annual ritual now occurs between November and February as the city’s air quality reaches dangerously hazardous levels. Schools are shut, construction is halted and government officials go into crisis mode to protect its citizens from the “invisible killer”. However, despite the restrictions, long bouts of severe smog still have a drastic human toll: an estimated 80 people in Delhi die every day from pollution-related complications.

A rock and a hard place

There are no easy solutions for Indian authorities. India’s environmental problems play out against a backdrop of sweltering global temperatures and international pressure to reduce emissions… both of which have to be balanced against providing energy and industry for the country’s burgeoning population.

Indeed, India overtook China’s long-held position as the world’s most populous country last April, having counted over 1.4 billion residents. Looking ahead, India’s population is virtually guaranteed to keep reaching new heights for decades to come.

China saw its numbers fall for a second consecutive year in 2023, as the recent pivot to a three-child policy failed to kickstart birth rates, which have fallen to record lows. India’s population, however, is showing no signs of slowing down — and, unlike China, the US, and several other major economies, its population is actually getting younger, with some 86,000 babies born on average every day in India.

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Power to the people

At the most basic level, more people need more power, which is why India’s national power output is also growing at its fastest pace in over 3 decades. Although the country has doubled down on renewables to meet this demand, it has also historically relied heavily on coal — a reliance that hasn’t faded as demand has shot up.

There is also a sharp split between the “economic engine” of the urbanized south of India and the less-monied north, which has widened in recent decades. Managing that divide — which is a complicated issue encompassing language, religion and geography — is likely to be a defining issue for the upcoming election. However, despite its rifts, India’s huge working population is creating an enormous middle class, with poverty rates falling to new lows of <5% last year.

Diverging fortunes

In recent years, India’s economy has continued to boom, just as China and other fast-growing countries have endured a post-pandemic slowdown. But, the country has a long way to go to replicate China’s success, after the economic fortunes of the two diverged dramatically some 30 years ago. Indeed, as recently as 1992, the GDP per capita of the 2 countries — which share a 2,167-mile border — was roughly equivalent: today, India’s is roughly one-fifth of China’s reported $12.7k.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that India made up 15% of global growth in 2023, and, having overtaken the UK as the world’s 5th largest economy in 2022, it’s now on track for 3rd place behind the US and China by 2030.

New trade deals under a ‘quid pro quo’ market access policy are opening India up to foreign investment. Two weeks ago a free trade pact was signed — binding 4 European countries to a $100bn investment after 15 years of negotiations — and tariffs are being lowered to encourage companies such as Tesla to build factories, while Indian firms increasingly make themselves indispensable parts of the Apple supply chain.

When, not if

It seems inevitable that India will be a global superpower in the shape of the US and China. How quickly it achieves that status will depend on how it bridges the political, cultural and environmental lines of division that threaten the country’s ability to unify as a thriving single market.

Thanks for reading.

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