President Barack Obama's visit to India and his praise of it as a "global power" that was no more "emerging" but has "emerged" has got many people thinking about the future of Indian foreign policy. No doubt some of the American president's words were overstated and designed to flatter the Indian elite - which is particularly prone to flattery - but it was equally clear that India's global standing had reached a level it could only have dreamt of in 1991, when the process of economic reform began.
Consequently there has been much focus in recent days on India's choices in the global system. How will it act as a non-permanent member of the Security Council - it has just been elected to a two-year term beginning January 1, 2011 - and potentially as a permanent member of the Security Council?
How will it square its strategic silence on Myanmar's oppression of democracy and calibrated pronouncements on Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon with responsibilities that Obama reminded it about and obligations the Security Council may demand of it? What must it do - whether in east Asia or west Africa - to counter growing Chinese influence? From Singapore to the United States many allies of the new India are asking these questions.
An enhanced role for India will also call for faster economic growth, for that is what makes it so attractive to its friends. This will entail quicker integration of the economy - from retail to agriculture to financial services - with international markets, investment and supply chains. Above all, it will need India to sort out its infrastructure mess.
Will this be enough? Are a more pragmatic foreign policy and optimum economic policies all that India requires? Actually, there is much more. Whether it's the economy or the social sector, foreign relations or domestic disputes, India has a compelling challenge before it: reforming governance and, by implication, government.
To be fair, that is hardly a startling revelation. Yet, when one talks about able government in India, the conversation usually moves to the confused nature of political coalitions, anguished calls for a two-party system and the wish for a strong single-party government.
This is part of the story, though fixing it is not easy. Neither is it fair to condemn the factionalised nature of the Indian polity simply because it doesn't deliver the sort of government the intellectual and business elite want. What cannot be wished away is that 10 or 15 party coalitions are, whether one likes them or not, representative of the popular will. If they are going to constrict individual policy action or reform that may be considered desirable, then India has to live with it.
The problem, however, is not limited to policy formulation but also to delivery, particularly delivery of public goods. Take education and health. Robust public investments in both of these are critical if India is to realise the value of its demographic dividend - the fact that it will have the largest population of young, working citizens among the countries of the world in the first half of the 21st century. Unless India enhances the quality of its demographic dividend, it will not have adequate skilled labour required for the technological innovation that not just the services sector but also contemporary manufacturing deploys.
As such, the Department of Primary Education in Bihar and the Department of Health in Uttar Pradesh - two of India's largest but also most underdeveloped states - are in effect responsible for India fulfilling the expectations it has of itself (or President Obama has of it). If Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are still desperately poor and impoverished and undereducated and packed with dirty, disease-ridden villages in 2030, India is unlikely to be seen as a role model and a superpower. If Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are developing economies by then, and become providers of educated and healthy white collar and blue collar workers, perceptions of India will be quite different. It's as simple as that.
Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are being cited only as examples. With some variations, the story is the same for, say, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Assam. Better, smarter delivery of public goods by better, smarter governments is an all-India need.
What does this leave us with? In the coming years, the role of government will contract in some areas - steel plants, hotels, even the railways - but increase in others such as the social sector and incubating large infrastructure projects. Indeed, because of the resources India now has available and because of India's current needs, budgets for health, education and infrastructure are going to magnify several-fold. Some of this is already taking place.
Unfortunately, it is also leading to a (hopefully temporary) disconnection between outlays and outcomes. Take health again. Courtesy the National Rural Health Mission, money from the Union government is pouring into the states. It is being spent, however, by state governments, as health is a state subject under the Constitution.
As it happens, different states have different capacities, priorities and levels of efficiency in their health departments. Some states are using the money wisely and reporting impressive strides in basic health care, for instance in reproductive and child health (RCH). Others are not even managing to spend the money allocated and the bureaucrats there are too vain to ask public health specialists for ideas.
What is it all adding up to? In sum, India needs to get its best talent into government. Since the urban middle class isn't going to go marching into politics in a hurry - never mind what editorial page columnists go on and on about - the point of entry will have to be the civil service.
Till the late 1970s, the civil service was the career of choice for educated Indians. Growing corporate job opportunities and the option of migration to campuses and work-places overseas began to make their presence felt in the 1980s. By the 1990s, with economic reform transforming India and its mindsets, only a motivated few from India's big cities and best schools and colleges bothered with the UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) examination. As a result, the junior to middle echelons of the civil service are today packed with an India B list.
In the coming years underlying structural factors will force a change. As more money is spent by the government (albeit in fewer areas) and as targets in the social sector and infrastructure will come to be measured in short years rather than long decades, India will need capable civil servants. That aside, as the country grows in importance, so will its government and it too will need to draw and be represented by the best of Indian human resources. Along with an infrastructure policy, a health policy and an education policy, India's government needs a 21st century recruitment policy. How soon before politicians wake up to this?
Ashok Malik is a journalist writing on, primarily, Indian politics and foreign policy, and inflicting his opinion on readers of several newspapers for close to 20 years. He lives in Delhi, is always game for an Americano and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.