Why India Could Become the Next Global Superpower: Part I

Lynne Cohen
March 22, 2024
It’s more than just dispiriting to behold the Canadian military’s disintegration and the current government’s deliberate neglect of our national defence. It raises the question of who might protect Canada in the future, given we can’t protect ourselves. For decades, the answer was simple: the United States. But with America in turmoil and decline, we can’t take that for granted anymore. Who could step up to become the next global hegemon? Lynne Cohen puts forth a provocative and bold answer: it might just be India. Cohen offers 10 criteria by which to measure the potential for a rising power to be not just expansionist, acquisitive or exploitative, but to become a moral superpower, one dedicated to safeguarding freedom and building prosperity for all. In Part One of this special two-part series, Cohen examines and rates how India has progressed in the first five criteria.

Why India Could Become the Next Global Superpower: Part I

Lynne Cohen
March 22, 2024
It’s more than just dispiriting to behold the Canadian military’s disintegration and the current government’s deliberate neglect of our national defence. It raises the question of who might protect Canada in the future, given we can’t protect ourselves. For decades, the answer was simple: the United States. But with America in turmoil and decline, we can’t take that for granted anymore. Who could step up to become the next global hegemon? Lynne Cohen puts forth a provocative and bold answer: it might just be India. Cohen offers 10 criteria by which to measure the potential for a rising power to be not just expansionist, acquisitive or exploitative, but to become a moral superpower, one dedicated to safeguarding freedom and building prosperity for all. In Part One of this special two-part series, Cohen examines and rates how India has progressed in the first five criteria.
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It is painful and even frightening to watch the United States of America implode, to stare bewildered as the country slides, slowly but inexorably, into the substratum of post-Western civilization. Historian Victor Davis Hanson likens it to the decline of the Roman Empire, a society that knew it was collapsing but lacked the power and the will to stop it. From the ignominious and calamitous bug-out from Afghanistan, to the deeply irresponsible and morally corrupt refusal to decide whether to enable Ukraine to defeat Russia or to force Ukraine to sue for peace and end the bloodshed, America abroad is in disarray.

The domestic picture is even worse. “Everywhere we turn, the country looks like it is falling apart,” writes lawyer and professor Laura Hollis. “Crime is out of control. Millions of illegal immigrants are pouring across our borders. Our schools are more interested in cultivating gender dysphoria and a proclivity for porn in our children than in educating them.” The U.S. has abandoned “the principles that are the underpinnings of American culture,” Hollis laments, “and we are reaping the consequences.” Washington is drowning in an ocean of debt, yet it continues to produce absurd, costly and damaging policies, such as casting aside the country’s recently achieved energy independence.

From its retreat out of Afghanistan (top left) to the illegal immigrant crisis at its southern border (top right) to so-called social justice movements that erode its commitment to equality, signs of America’s decline are everywhere. (Sources of photos: (top right) AP Photo/Edgar H. Clemente, File; (bottom left) Sam T (samm4mrox), licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; (bottom right) Informed Images, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

It’s not just the U.S. that suffers, however. The decline of American power and deterrence is making the world a more dangerous place, explains UnHerd columnist Aris Roussinos. America’s fundamentally benign hegemony – the Pax Americana that gave the world nearly 80 years of general peace, transformed the oceans into maritime superhighways that unleashed prodigious global trade, and set the stage for the greatest upsurge of prosperity the world has ever seen – is being challenged “in the confidence that the United States now possesses neither the logistical capacity nor the domestic political stability necessary to impose its order on the world,” writes Roussinos.

Back during the height of America’s “unipolar moment” in the 1990s and early 2000s, the country and its approach went virtually unchallenged and people seriously foresaw the day when virtually all of the world’s countries would be democratic and peaceful. Now, writes Roussinos, “from the Red Sea to the Donbas, the jungles of South America to the Far East, America’s security establishment finds itself struggling to contain local blazes that threaten to become a great conflagration.”

A moral superpower: The U.S. paid most of the bills for reconstruction in Japan (top) and Germany after the Second World War, and sent troops into global trouble spots like Syria (middle) decades later; the era of American hegemony brought us NATO (below), which secured peace in Europe for 75 years. (Sources of photos: (top) Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2005-0721-524, Klaus Kindermann; (middle) Sgt. Nicole Paese/Army; (bottom) NATO)

Those on the left may see America’s decline as its rightful comeuppance, the price it is finally paying for its imperialism, greed, arrogance, cultural ignorance, and economic and military bullying. But those who value freedom and prosperity realize that much of the world has come to depend on the American economy for their own economic success, American strength for their own security, American technology to improve their own lives and, yes, American morality as a standard of behaviour to emulate.

Others who don’t wish America harm might still think the world is better off without a global hegemon – any global hegemon. It’s not. With America at the helm, the world could count on the protection of the global commons – at sea and in the air. America could prevent regional conflicts from spiralling. Following the Second World War, the U.S. paid most of the bills for the reconstruction of Germany and Japan, while fostering their transition into durable democracies, rather than laying waste to its vanquished enemies as the Soviet Union did to Eastern Europe. The era of American hegemony then brought us NATO, which delivered peace in Europe for the next 75 years.

For all its flaws, America was an essentially moral superpower, concerned with building a safer, freer world – while, granted, making money in doing so. Who will now replace America as the world’s force for good? Under whose protection will smaller, weaker nations be able to remain independent and prosper? What nation will be the example to others, that beacon of light on the hill?

Any candidate needs to be a large and powerful, sovereign country. Unfortunately, the two obvious contenders – China and Russia – seek to dominate and exploit weaker nations. They cannot be trusted. Their governments are demonstrably and, it appears, irredeemably immoral – indeed almost gleefully so. Their predominance would be little short of a new Dark Age.

What about superpower authority by groups of cooperating countries, like the United Nations or the European Union? These could never fit the bill due to the innate tendency toward internal division and the fact that individual members could always pull out of such arrangements. And thankfully, world government – which would eliminate the need for a moral superpower – is not in the offing, even if international elites seem to like the idea. Such a thing would require independent countries to forfeit their sovereignty. It’s impossible to imagine 194 countries – including Russia and China, never mind Saudi Arabia and Iran – agreeing to that.

Looking around, is there any other candidate?

To consider the question, it’s worth exploring what characteristics a moral superpower must possess. During my university studies long ago, one of my professors put forth eight traits for us to consider that then applied to the U.S. I subsequently refined the list, adding two more criteria. Altogether they are:

  1. A large and patriotic population.
  2. High levels of education.
  3. A robust, market-based (capitalist) economy.
  4. Abundant natural resources on a large land mass.
  5. English as a main language.
  6. A large, technologically-advanced military.
  7. Elections and overall freedom, guaranteed in a functional constitution.
  8. Widespread religion.
  9. Protective seas and strong borders.
  10. Effective diplomacy.

Looking over these criteria and considering the nations of the world, their recent development, current state and overall direction, could the next moral superpower be, perhaps, just maybe…India?

The next moral superpower? First among the 10 key criteria posited by the author is having a large and patriotic population. At 1.4 billion people and with indisputable indicators of patriotism, India amply qualifies. Pictured: (top) the teeming port city of Mumbai, population 21.7 million; (bottom) Indian soldiers on parade drill. (Sources of photos: (top) Shutterstock; (bottom) Ramniklal Modi/Shutterstock)

Before unpacking these ten characteristics, let us stipulate that India today is in a different position than the U.S. was throughout the 20th century. India is bordered by enemies in a way the U.S. is not, and those threats have erupted at times into regional wars. It has more genuine poverty than America has ever had. India also suffers from factionalism, political nepotism and sectarian violence, the latter involving sometimes deadly clashes between Hindus and Muslims. Although banned by its 1950 constitution, India’s caste system persists and too often works against full social and economic mobility, though many see discrimination based on caste as waning. And it’s true that in contrast to America, which for 400 years has been both inspiration and irresistible magnet to uncounted millions of immigrants, many people today want to leave India while few are clamouring to move there.

But obstacles can be overcome. America rose to dominance even as it struggled to overcome its legacy of slavery and other racial divisions. Great Britain, arguably the first moral superpower, had its own rigid class system and was decidedly poor in natural resources. India has made undeniable progress in numerous areas.

It is useful to look at India’s history as it emerged from British colonial rule to explain what’s so impressive about where it is today and where it appears to be headed. The June 1908 edition of The Atlantic Monthly marked 50 years since Queen Victoria’s Proclamation declaring India was to be ruled by the British monarch. Writer James Mascarene Hubbard noted at the time that the anniversary “marks the beginning of the greatest experiment in government which the world has ever witnessed. Never before had so many of the human race been subject to a single foreign ruler.” Julius Caesar, he wrote, only ruled over an estimated 120 million at the height of his power; Edward VII, then-current Emperor of India, is “the supreme lord of three hundred millions.”

One writer declared British rule of India “the greatest experiment in government the world has ever witnessed”; by 1908, some 300 million people were under the rule of King Edward VII (bottom left); shown at top, Indian military representatives attend Edward VII’s coronation, July 1902; at bottom right, India in the early 1900s.

India, Hubbard continued, “is a continent rather than a country, larger than all Europe with the exception of Russia, and having all the continental varieties of surface and climate, from the perpetual snows of the Himalayas to the tropical plains of Madras.” It was home to 14 distinct races who spoke 147 different languages and dialects; there were 259 units of administration in the provinces under British control and 680 “native or feudatory states” with their own rulers. Someone travelling “from Bombay to Calcutta passes, in a thousand miles, through a country inhabited by peoples differing more in race, religion, and habits of life, than all those he sees in going twice the distance from Constantinople to London.”

Though the immediate aftermath of independence in 1947 was anything but peaceful, this was largely the result of conflict between Hindus and Muslims and the resulting partition into two countries, including two separate parts of Pakistan (one of which is now Bangladesh). When India became a republic in 1950, it maintained the Westminster-style parliamentary government imposed (or gifted) by Britain. It has since developed in a way that adheres to the fundamental principles that undergird liberal democracies.

This is a crucial requirement in a moral superpower because an international force for good must be, above all, good. Its essential characteristics must radiate outward throughout the world. Freedom of speech, association and religion are basic rights for every citizen. Due process of law for all is guaranteed in the legal system – and is reflected in daily reality. Regular elections are held to choose governments. And the country must adhere to values that some might call old-fashioned and others would consider timeless or eternal. Children are cherished and protected. Life is considered sacred. And religion is respected, even if not universally observed and practised.

Even when it became a republic in 1950, India maintained the Westminster-style parliamentary government (top) established by Britain and has since developed in a way that adheres to the principles that undergird liberal democracies; at bottom, the upper house, or Rajya Sabha, of India’s parliament. (Source of bottom photo: ANI via Sansad TV)

The argument here is that, despite its major problems, India could have what it takes to at least aspire to, and perhaps even fulfil, the role of the world’s next moral superpower. I presented the thesis to a number of Indian professors at North American universities. Those who responded almost all cited the country’s ongoing problems with poverty and unemployment as reasons to reject the notion. One who saw merit to the thesis was Professor Nallan Suresh, who teaches at the University at Buffalo School of Management.

Born in Chennai, a city on the Bay of Bengal on India’s east coast, Suresh grew up middle class in the former British military stronghold which had doubled as an East India Company trading post. He attended the Indian Institute of Technology which some compare, incorrectly, to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For one thing, IIT is harder to get into than MIT. Importantly, Suresh notes that rage and resentment toward the British are not the dominant political emotions in India. “Not at all, we love the British,” he says, reflecting on his experience and that of his successful compatriots. “Indians are not bitter about our history with England. We are grateful.” India, in other words, has chosen to learn and draw strength from its former colonizer, something that has undeniably accelerated the independent country’s rise.

Professor Nallan Suresh (left) says “India still has a long way to go in terms of economic performance” given its low per capita income compared to other countries; he nonetheless sees it meeting the criteria of a moral superpower.

Suresh of course has reservations about giving India the full medal of honour. “India still has a long way to go in terms of economic performance,” he says. “Even though India is the fifth-largest economy in the world now, the per capita income is way, way, way behind China and other countries.” But when I put to him the list of ten characteristics required of a moral superpower, he replied: “I would tend to agree with all of them. All of those factors.”

Taking those 10 characteristics one-by-one, how then does India stack up?

One: A Large and Patriotic Population

A large and patriotic population gives a country the means to project and exercise power, and to sustain and advance its foreign policy even under extreme duress. It is one of the prerequisites to becoming a superpower. When the U.S. entered the Second World War in late 1941, for example, there was no longer any doubt about which side would prevail. With an advanced industrial base and virtually the entire population of more than 133 million patriotic citizens believing in the righteousness of the cause, the Allied victory was assured. Today, by contrast, only 39 percent of U.S. adults consider themselves extremely proud to be American, according to Gallup. That’s a near-record low and represents an overall figure slightly smaller than the U.S. Second World War population. The patriotic proportion had ranged between 65 and 70 percent as recently as the early 2000s, in the aftermath of 9/11.

True patriot love: The vast majority of Indians consider themselves patriotic – including the country’s minority Sikhs, who proclaim themselves proud of their national identity. (Sources: (table) Pew Research Centre; (photo) eriktorner, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Compare that to India, where 62 percent consider themselves patriotic, with another 29 percent saying they are somewhat patriotic. In a country of 1.4 billion – India last year surpassed China as the world’s most populous nation, and is still growing – a 91 percent rate of patriotism is impressive.

Even India’s Sikh minority is patriotic. The fight by separatists for a Sikh homeland in the Punjab region has been the country’s major internal conflict, even since before independence. (More on that in Part Two.) In recent years, however, factional tensions seem to have been largely constrained to hard-core insurgents and hard-line government security agencies. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center report, Sikhs are “overwhelmingly proud of their Indian identity.” Fully 95 percent of Sikhs say they are “very proud to be Indian” and a healthy majority, 70 percent, say a person who disrespects India cannot be a Sikh. As well, most Sikhs say they do not experience significant discrimination – just 14 percent say Sikhs face a lot of discrimination in India, and 18 percent say they have personally faced religious discrimination in the last year.

India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has the highest approval rating among major world leaders, at 78 percent. (Source of photo: India Blooms)

Suresh attributes much of the strong patriotism to what he calls the “Modi factor.” At 78 percent, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the highest approval rating of any major world leader. First elected in 2014, Modi was re-elected in 2019 and will face voters again in April. As leader of the more conservative Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi is not so popular in the left-wing Western press, which often refers to his party as the Hindu nationalist party. But to Suresh, there’s no doubt where Modi’s movement stands: “You might just say it is a patriotic party.”

Rating: Strong. Score: 9 out of 10.

Two: High Levels of Education

A superpower also needs an educated population. When it comes to war-fighting capability, advanced weapons take technological know-how and educated troops are best able to handle the sophisticated demands of the modern battlefield. A civics education is equally important, so soldiers know what they are defending and why, or why they are taking part in an offensive war. Education gives teeth to patriotism. An educated population is also key to building a powerful economy, and for having the depth of talent for the trade and foreign affairs machinery needed to project power by economic and diplomatic means.

India’s literacy rate has increased markedly – strengthening its position in the second of the 10 key criteria for a moral superpower – although a significant gender disparity persists; the education system needs improvement, particularly in serving poor and rural populations.

India still has work to do on this front. In the U.S., 79 percent of adults are literate, compared to 74 percent in India, plus the latter country has a wide gender disparity, with the male literacy rate at 82.14 percent versus the female rate of 65.46 percent. “The education system in India has a long way to go before it can be considered truly effective,” concludes Unacademy, India’s largest online learning website. “However, many initiatives are being undertaken by the government and various other organizations to try and improve the situation.” The country has more than 700 universities and 37,000 colleges, and 26 percent of adults aged 18-23 are enrolled in higher education. Professor Suresh agrees India is well behind in the education of its rural and poor population, “But the vast majority of the middle class have access to a very good education system.”

Rating: Lagging, but catching up. Score: 6 out of 10.

Three: A Robust, Market-Based (Capitalist) Economy

India’s economy, as measured by GDP, is the fifth-biggest in the world, and the fastest-growing among major countries. Averaging 5.5 percent GDP growth over the past decade, India is expected to surpass Japan and Germany to move into third spot by 2027. It has transformed itself from a largely agricultural economy to one with strength in manufacturing and services. “India is poised to become the factory to the world, as corporate tax cuts, investment incentives and infrastructure spending help drive capital investments in manufacturing,” gushed a 2022 report from Morgan Stanley called India’s Impending Economic Boom.

Companies from around the world have been outsourcing software development, customer service and back office technology work to India since the early days of the internet, aiding its efforts to build a diverse and resilient economy. As Forbes magazine put it in a recent article: “India’s economy boasts diversity and swift growth, fueled by key sectors such as information technology, services, agriculture, and manufacturing.” Even the “re-shoring” that everyone expects as a byproduct of the new, darker global order may not hurt India. “In a post-Covid environment, CEOs are more comfortable with both work from home and work from India,” said Ridham Desai, Morgan Stanley’s Chief Equity Strategist for India.

India’s economy has become the world’s fifth-largest and the fastest-growing; by 2027 India is expected to surpass Japan and Germany to move into third spot.

Still, India is a poor country – a dismal 160th in the world in GDP per capita. But that measure too has seen healthy improvement. The country’s expanding middle class and impressive improvements to infrastructure –all of India’s 600,000-plus villages now have access to electricity thanks to recent transmission upgrades, for example – should help drive further gains in prosperity.

The most important factor in India’s transformation has been the increasing commitment to free markets. A capitalist economy is essential in a moral superpower, in part because no other system can drive growth and innovation as effectively, but also because the projection of economic freedom out into the world is beneficial to all. In contrast to the communism of the other former superpower, the Soviet Union, a market-based economy encourages efficiency, rewards innovation and, even if it must involve some government imposition in the name of achieving certain social goals, frees individuals to work for a better future. Capitalism delivers vastly greater prosperity to vastly greater numbers than any alternative economic system.

“The factory to the world”: India has transformed itself from a largely agricultural nation to one with strengths in manufacturing, information technology and services; it’s now the world’s fourth-largest auto market and the second-largest smartphone market. (Sources of photos: (left) Amit Verma/India Forbes; (right) Firstpost)

For years both before and after independence, India was decidedly not a free market economy. “Acceptance of socialism was strong in India long before independence, spurred by widespread resentment against British colonialism and the land-owning princely class,” explains American historian Lee Edwards, “and by the efforts of the Communist Party of India, established in 1921.” The first Prime Minister, Jawaharla Nehru, advocated socialism – which is written into India’s constitution, in fact (more on that in Part 2).

Socialism became the basis of India’s economy after 1947. Imports were restricted, foreign direct investment was prohibited and banks were nationalized. Price controls were imposed on a wide range of industries and companies were told how much they could produce. Any producer who exceeded licenced capacity faced possible imprisonment. “India was perhaps the only country in the world where improving productivity…was a crime,” wrote economist Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar in a 2016 research paper for the Cato Institute. Personal income taxes topped out at “a stifling 97.75 percent.”

By the late 1970s, half the country lived in poverty and, writes Edwards, “economic reform became an imperative.” Successive governments began to liberalize. Companies were allowed to expand production, tariffs came down, and private investment and competition were encouraged. GDP began to rise, the middle class emerged and today India is one of the world’s best examples of a free market economy’s astounding ability to drive prosperity. As recently as 2005-2006, about 645 million Indians lived in poverty; today that figure is down to 230 million out of a much larger population. As Indian economist Gurcharan Das noted back in 2001: “Never before in recorded history have so many people been in a position to rise so quickly.”

Escape from socialism: For years after independence, India’s socialist economy kept the country impoverished; the move to a market-based economy drove prosperity and created a massive middle class eager to enjoy its benefits. (Sources of photos: (top left) Jane Whitmore Photography; (top right) vincent desjardins, licensed under CC BY 2.0; (bottom left) YKA)

Key to securing such impressive gains plus building longer-term economic resilience is India’s large and growing middle class. The World Bank expects the country’s economy to grow by 6.4 percent this year, the fastest among major economies. India is the world’s fourth-largest auto market and the second-largest smartphone market. Dhruva Jaishankar of the Brookings Institute declares that, “India’s associations have started to change over the past quarter century from a land of poverty and Mother Theresa to a source of software programmers and techies.”

One final demonstration of India’s commitment to economic freedom is the fact that its Border Security Force has a Left Wing Extremism Division, created in 2006 to deal, as an Indian government handbook describes it, with “[s]ome sections of the society, especially the younger generation, [who] have romantic illusions about the Maoists, arising out of an incomplete understanding of their ideology. The central theme of Maoist ideology is violence.” Quite a change from 1947.

Rating: Much improved, but more to be done. Score: 7 out of 10.

Four: Abundant Natural Resources on a Large Land Mass

Wealth in natural resources gives a budding superpower a certain level of self-sufficiency, and allows it to project size and confidence to let the world know it cannot be pushed around.

Wealth in natural resources is of acute strategic importance; though weak in crude oil, India has an abundance of coal, iron ore and lithium, as well as significant natural gas potential; it is also the world’s largest producer of manganese ore (top) and the biggest exporter of cut and polished diamonds (bottom). (Sources of photos: (top) Telangana Today; (bottom) Mint)

India is the world’s seventh-largest country, with an area of 3,287,263 square kilometres. Of that, a remarkable 60 percent can be cultivated, according to the World Bank. And India is blessed with natural resources: the world’s fourth-biggest coal reserves, sixth-largest reserves of lithium and seventh of iron ore. It’s also the world’s largest producer of manganese ore and the biggest exporter of cut and polished diamonds, which brought in some $24.4 billion in 2022. Overall, according to AZO Mining, “Experts feel that India will continue to be largely self-sufficient in many mineral and metal resources and emerge as a leader in metal and mineral resources, provided it frames stringent policies to tackle its mining lobby and illegal mining activities.”

As for other energy resources besides coal, India has significant natural gas potential as well, but only enough crude oil production to meet 25 percent of the country’s current demand. This is not only economically but also geopolitically unfortunate – but need not be a fatal weakness. The U.S. for decades was a net importer of oil, and China today is a massive oil importer. India “is not fully endowed,” says Suresh, “but relatively speaking, every country has some resources and not others. So, in terms of strengthening India, yes, these natural resources are crucial.”

Rating: Solid, not spectacular. Score: 6 out of 10.

Five: English as a Main Language

India’s astounding linguistic diversity – recall those 147 languages mentioned above – has been an ever-present latent source of disunity and disintegration. At independence it was considered a serious threat to the young country’s prospects. Throughout history, a common language has been a key unifying element for any nation or empire. But why English for India, in particular?

As the education testing service ETS puts it: “It is the language of science, aviation, computers, diplomacy and tourism. Last but not least, it is the language of international communication, the media and the internet.” Estimates of the proportion of India’s population that can speak English, pegged at 10 percent in the 2011 census (the last one completed), have since ranged from 20 to 30 percent. Along with Hindi, English is an official language of India and is very often used in government services – including the Indian Parliament – and in educational institutions. After Hindi, it is the country’s second-most common language, imparting a considerable economic advantage. Almost 89 percent of Indians with a bachelor’s degree can speak English, and men who speak English fluently earn up to 34 percent more than those who don’t.

The great unifier: Rather than denigrating the English language as a remnant of colonialism to be cast away, Indian opinion leaders urge parents to make sure their children learn English; it’s the language of business, science, diplomacy, technology and the internet – and the second most common language in the country.

Rather than denigrate the language as a remnant of colonialism, opinion leaders often urge parents to make sure their children are taught English. Sahith Aula, a venture capitalist writing in Forbes, argued that even more Indians needed to become fluent in English: “There is a large population of people who do not have access to education, jobs, and opportunities due to their inability to communicate effectively. This language barrier prevents them from taking advantage of the global economy and growing as individuals.”

English has always been the language that connects the country, says Suresh: “For sure, the upper and the middle classes are all fluent in English. They learn it in school, from a young age. It’s a huge advantage.” So while India certainly has some way to go in this area, another way to look at it is that a considerable chunk of a country of 1.4 billion people can communicate in the international language of business, and are able to help push their country to greater heights in international affairs.

Rating: More than respectable. Score: 8 out of 10.

So far, then, by economic and demographic measures, not to mention sheer size, India looks well on its way to becoming a global superpower. This brings us to the end of Part One. In Part Two, we will look at the other five required characteristics, starting with perhaps the most important: a strong, technologically-advanced military.

Lynne Cohen is a journalist and non-practising lawyer from Ottawa. She has four books published, including the biography Let Right Be Done: The Life and Times of Bill Simpson.

Source of main image: PradeepGaurs/Shutterstock.

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