A virus follows no border, nor respects nation states and does not discriminate on the grounds of race, religion, class, caste or gender either. This has triggered global anxiety over the decrepit state of public health system, in need of repair in most parts of the world. It also reminds us that even in an unequal world, only a concerted global effort can contain a pandemic of Covid-19. So, ironically, at a time when the decline of the ‘old order’ is being projected and a ‘new’ order’s emergence is being heralded, multilateralism makes a reappearance. That this is so is evident from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outreach to the SAARC heads of government to discuss a “joint strategy to fight Coronavirus”, after having shunned the regional body for more than three years.
Remember, SAARC has been comatose after India’s refusal to attend a scheduled summit in Islamabad in 2016. This was followed by India shunning engagement with Pakistan and working arduously to “isolate” Pakistan. Among other initiatives, India pushed for BIMSTEC. However, the refusal to engage with Pakistan within a regional forum turned untenable once India and Pakistan became members of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Moreover, Pakistan could not be isolated diplomatically, as recent developments in Afghanistan reveal.
It is equally interesting to note that the possibility of ISIS gaining ground, while the two contending regimes in Kabul begin the process of starting dialogue with Taliban, objectively demands that India work together with Pakistan. And that it uses its relations with the United States, China and Russia to encourage the contending sides in Kabul to engage with the Taliban. Certainly, to not treat this as a zero-sum-game, where Pakistan’s quandary is treated as India’s comfort.
It is also worth note that the Taliban, for all its Islamist ideology, remains a nationalist force. Like them or dislike them, they are Afghans first. Only a dialogue—something all major players engaged in Afghanistan are backing—can pin down the Taliban to get it to address the concerns of all Afghans and provide the assurances needed to resume the more arduous task of rebuilding the war-torn country. Instability will not just prolong the war but also allow ISIS to gain strength and spill over to South and Central Asia.
Besides, with Coronavirus threatening to push the global economy into recession while the Indian economy has slowed down, India’s legendary resilience will not suffice against these challenges without multi-lateral cooperation. Certainly, in such times regional peaceful co-existence acquires priority, in particular with India’s neighbours.
Coronavirus is being seen as a trigger for speeding up a shift in global value chains, because China had locked down its manufacturing power-centre, in the Hubei province. The fact is, China is the single-largest contributor to world trade, accounting for 23% of it, having overtaken the United States, which contributes 19%. China is now picking itself up and as its massive manufacturing scales up again while the world grapples with the pandemic, it is more than likely that China will be the one propping up world trade. Because, amongst all major powers, it is China that today has a better record of promoting multilateralism and investing in scaling up multilateral transport, communication, investment and trade. Of course it alone cannot revive the world economy, but play a lead role China can.
In contrast, the only other country which can lead global efforts, the United States has poor public health system and the battle between the public and private health systems is at its peak in that country; and its outcome is unpredictable. The United States administration’s penchant for looking inwards makes it a reluctant leader at best.
Therefore, one welcomes this ice-breaking moment to breathe life back into SAARC. India’s standing in the world can only be enhanced if regional cooperation and coexistence is realised in South Asia. Neighbours, good or bad, cannot be wished away. There are myriad ways in which India’s destiny is tied to the well-being and welfare of the people in this region. And there are historical and cultural ties between people which needs encouragement and nurturing. Therefore, investing in regional cooperation offers a better guarantee of improving India’s room for autonomy vis a vis China than any short-sighted and hubris-driven military alliance with the United States to contain China.
However, a major drawback for India is its fractured domestic political scene, especially a government-backed ideological transformation of the institutions of the State, accompanied by policies which divide, create dissonance and disharmony. Subversion of the 1950 Constitution which was inclusive, which is said to belong to the “old regime”, whereas the “new regime” which excludes and fractures unifying concepts, propels India towards Hinduvta-led majoritarianism. It is marked by the celebration and rationalisation of lynching and vigilantism and promotion of mediaeval statecraft—where institutions of State dispense justice and enforce law according to a person’s political leanings, social rank and place in the pecking order under the “new regime”.
Thus, abrogation of special status for Jammu and Kashmir, along with its reduction to a virtual colony of New Delhi, the triad of CAA-NPR-NRC which introduces religion as criterion for citizenship and institutionalises discrimination, and the singling out of the citizen protestors for assault and persecution, in violation of law and the Constitution, define this moment.
Indeed it is a telling commentary on our times that those being hounded and vilified by the rulers are pilloried for upholding the “old” but universalist and unifying concepts of inclusive citizenship, democratic secular constitution and ‘azaadi’, the very spirit behind the 1950 Constitution. For the “new” mediaeval order waiting to emerge, such concepts are anathema. Recall what the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh said: he claimed that shouting slogans of “azaadi” is a seditious act. This comes at a time when advocacy of judiciary and executive working in tandem is brazenly promoted.
India’s Union Foreign Minister at the two-day dialogues on “rise of nationalism and end of globalisation” organised by the Centre for Policy Research on 2 March, spoke about weakening multilateralism, making way for plurilaterals where “convergence emerges as an adequate standard for nations to work together”. He pointed out that in such a vexed situation debates are becoming “polarised”, and that “the landscape has become more difficult”. He added that “the very articulation of interests have come under challenge”. And then he said: “Competition is not just amongst states, but often within them, reflecting the tension between the old order and emerging ones. When ideologies, identities and history mix with business, politics, and strategy can create a very potent cocktail. But the need of the hour remains more sober conversations.”
Let’s place this in its context. His reference to “polarised” debates is an oblique reference to India’s diplomatic fire-fighting since the lockdown of Kashmir, on top of the 30-year internal war with its terrible tragedies and pain. With the new CAA, which introduces religion as a criterion for citizenship, and the brutal suppression in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka of the mass protests which followed, has earned India much opprobrium. In North America, European Union countries as well as members of the Organisation of Islamic Countries, through public condemnation as well as expressions of concern over the developments, have made themselves heard. Although the spectre of Covid-19 does help mute criticism, the apprehension over the direction in which India is moving will remain, unless those policies change.
In any case, anything which happens within India, which comprises 1.3 billion people, matters and ought to matter to the world. Especially what is meted out to its significant minorities and/or if it exacerbates conflicts within, which will impact developments elsewhere in the region. Two of India’s friendly neighbours, Bangladesh as well as Maldives, have expressed concerns over CAA-NPR-NRC, in which Muslims in general and Bangladeshis in particular are cast by officially sanctioned propaganda as the villains. So it seems that when the MEA speaks of “articulation of interests” he was implicitly justifying the exclusivist and divisive political project of his government and defending it as something to do with India’s sovereign right; although the country stands divided over this.
So why is it so hard for the rulers to accept that they are themselves progenitors of “polarising debates”, which make it well-nigh impossible for “sober conversations” to take place. In order for “sober conversations” to take place requires also an openness to listen as well as willingness to learn.
Advocacy of “sober conversations”, moreover, requires that the government look at the way in which they have polarised India, where energies are getting expended on divisive issues, exhausting the citizens, who have now to grapple with a pandemic virus and live with its fallout. How sensible is it to push through CAA-NPR-NRC in the midst of all this? Why does the BJP government shy away from reaching out to the citizen protestors, instead of vilifying them? At a time when the world is facing the pandemic virus and the impending reality of a global economic slowdown?
Finally, in a turbulent world which the foreign minister claims is transiting from the “old order” to the “emerging new”, the period of transition can be long and the outcome unpredictable. Politics is a process. On appearances, it does seem as though the world is evolving away from globalisation and towards nationalism. Except, fact is, the speed with which capitalist globalisation was taking place has slowed down. However, there is no reversal happening. The rise of nationalism, in contrast, is more verbal and shrill than in real terms of breakdown of, say, global value chains or collapse of multilateralism. India’s dependence on FDI and inter-mediates, as well as reliance on imported military wherewithal provide a compelling reason to recalibrate.
Besides, echo chambers that rulers live in are not conducive for taking bold steps. Even the most obtuse government knows that it is not from within the “charmed circle” that progressive new ideas emerge. It is from lived cultural and political contestations, and ‘sober’ albeit robust conversations that the way forward emerges.
There is much that is possible, provided the Narendra Modi-led BJP government has the courage to amend its religiously-driven notion of citizenship, removes all encumbrances in Jammu and Kashmir, and release all the detenues as the bare minimum to break the impasse. Energies thus released can be directed to more creative and constructive endeavours. A crisis is an opportunity—to change tack, heal wounds and confront challenges in order to move forward.
Or will India relapse into the parochial and myopic quagmire, once the pandemic ends?
The author is a human rights activist. The views are personal.