India must get ready for a tougher world | Opinion
India — which had a period of relative international security and benign climate — will today have to gear up for a more unstable environment and more hostilityUpdated: Jul 25, 2020 19:24 IST
For close to a decade-and-a-half, broadly between 2000 and 2015, India was lucky in having a conducive international environment for its growth and ambitions. It was not just luck though. A series of Indian leaders and bureaucrats ensured that the country was able to shape this international environment, within its limited powers, in its favour.
Think back. The end of the 1990s, under the remarkably far-sighted leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, saw India conduct nuclear tests. This invited international sanctions. But it also opened the doors for substantive dialogue with the international community, particularly the United States (US), about the underlying logic of the relationship between the two countries. The Strobe Talbot-Jaswant Singh dialogue, Bill Clinton’s visit to India, Vajpayee calling India and the US natural partners, and the two countries moving ahead with the next steps in the strategic partnership, fundamentally altered the texture of the relationship. Manmohan Singh ably took the baton, signing the defence framework agreement and, of course, the nuclear deal — over which he staked his government. Narendra Modi too carried forward this legacy, letting go of the hurt that the US visa ban on him must have caused, introducing a new diplomatic style at Madison Square, getting Barack Obama as chief guest for Republic Day, and remaining invested in the relationship with Donald Trump. The US, despite its differences with India, is now a steady partner.
But while this partnership has deepened, a lot else has changed.
In the early 2000s, under Vajpayee and Singh, there was an effort to engage with China productively. There was hope that a solution to the border dispute could be found. India recognised Chinese sensitivities on Tibet; China recognised India’s claim over Sikkim. The economic linkages were deepening. The prevailing narrative was of China’s peaceful rise, and a strong view emerged that the two countries could grow together. In the neighbourhood, even thoughtful diplomats argued that India and China could cooperate on projects. There was room for cooperation on global issues — from reform of international institutions to the climate crisis. PM Modi too wished to give this framework a chance, which is what his Ahmedabad invitation to Xi Jinping represented. China, many believed, was not a friend, but it need not be an adversary either. This was a view that many revised with the rise of Xi, but others held on to it — in hindsight, unwisely so.
The neighbourhood was suddenly looking more favourable in the 2000s too. India had embraced the idea of South Asian regionalism and connectivity. It had facilitated a historic peace deal in Nepal, bringing an end to a decade-long war, ensuring the entry of the Maoists into peaceful politics. And there was enormous goodwill among both the Nepali people and the Kathmandu leadership for Delhi — which gave Indian diplomats enormous leverage. In Sri Lanka, India had, quietly, helped the government bring an end to the civil war, but here, it was through military means and an outright defeat of the Tamil Tigers — some believed that this would erode Indian leverage, but it did give points to Delhi in Colombo. Bhutan remained Delhi’s closest friend, but now within the modern framework of a new treaty, as the country turned semi-democratic. In Bangladesh, after a turbulent transition, Sheikh Hasina returned, with an explicit platform of deepening ties with India, leading to the most-friendly dispensation in Dhaka in decades.
Pakistan remained the black spot. But this was due to Pakistan’s own deep State complex, its ideological construct and identity based on opposition to India, and its irresponsible, dangerous patronage of terror groups. But if in the 1990s, Pakistan had a propaganda advantage in the West, by the 2000s, the world had come to recognise that Pakistan was the problem in South Asia. Its sponsorship of terror was now globally known. Its Islamist turn was noted, its nuclear assets and the illegal network were frowned upon. And while the US may have needed Islamabad in Afghanistan, the era of India being hyphenated with Pakistan was over.
All of this was, of course, propelled by a bright Indian economic story — of a large middle class, of a huge market, of reforms leading to the unleashing of entrepreneurial energy, of an English-speaking talent pool, of high growth rates, and of opportunities. India was doing well domestically, and the international climate was aiding that vibrancy.
This era is now over.
It is over because the global order itself has changed. The post-1991 order — where the US was the clear hegemon, or the post-2008 order, where the US began to coexist, somewhat uneasily, with a rising China, has now given way to a post-Covid world order — which marks a fairly public, intensified degree of competition and conflict between the US and China. The US itself is no longer as dominant in the international system, with Trump aiding its decline. The world is turning inwards, with the rise of protectionism and ultra-nationalism in a range of countries. There is greater uncertainty.
But the more immediate context for India has also changed.
China is no longer a possible partner; it is a clear adversary. The military threat is real; the prospects of global cooperation with Beijing are limited; the competition in the neighbourhood is a zero-sum game where China is seeking to erode India’s influence. The Pakistan-China nexus has only deepened with the Belt and Road Initiative. The two-front threat is now a real possibility. The neighbourhood has become more fragile. Political elites in neighbouring capitals, driven by nationalism and Chinese attention and investment, are open to undermining India. And, most critically, the economic growth that drove the Indian story is today in jeopardy, with a likely contraction in the economy, unemployment, demand deficit, and an unpredictable policy environment.
All of this means that India — which had a period of relative international security and benign climate — will today have to gear up for a more unstable environment and more hostility.
This is an issue which affects national interest gravely. To be able to counter it effectively, it is crucial that the government and the Opposition work together, or evolve a broad common position on key issues — the relationship with the US, China, Pakistan, and neighbourhood policy. This does not mean that there can be no criticism of government policy. But it means that key stakeholders in national politics are aware and well-informed of the complexities driving policy; the government is more open to suggestions; the Opposition is more constructive in its approach; and international players are unable to exploit India’s internal democratic divisions to suit their interests.
Get ready for a tougher world out there, with a sense of unity.