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India’s Pandemic Predicament: Gnarled Odyssey of Politics but Performance too

photo credit: UNICEF/Ruhani Kaur

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It’s a once-in-a-century pandemic. Yet, its lacerating proliferation has sufficed to break the backs of national healthcare systems globally. The pandemic has constituted a moment of unprecedented reckoning for professional credence and rectitude of policymakers and practitioners across frontiers, while existentially assailing every fundamental precept and tenet that underpins the liberal global order. Arguably, in pursuance of efficient transcendental cooperation, it has exposed the superficial and fragile notion of the pluralised sovereign collectivisation.

One in three around the world is either an Indian or a Chinese. The pandemic has exposed these two populous demographics to a number of vagaries and vicissitudes. Beijing has been widely perceived as successful in smothering the home-grown pathogen through shuttering and surveillance measures, construed as draconian by many but mightily effective too. As a result, economic and societal rebound is underway and gathering momentum. India, by contrast, has had to proceed the innately democratic way, which exudes the challenging features of societal indiscipline, chaos and dissonance, and involves the travails of forging consensual functioning within the obvious fetters of multi-party democratic federalism. Despite this high bar, in relative terms India appeared to have accomplished more than its most illustrious peers in the opulent North and across the Global South when it staved off the first wave of the pandemic, with modest damage to life and livelihoods, through most of 2020.

So what has contributed to this fall from grace, as the world’s most populous democracy finds itself in the cynosure of global attention of concern and pillory on account of the ravaging second wave of a severely mutating pandemic threatening to embarrassingly overwhelm the nation’s abysmal healthcare apparatus?

Taming the First Wave: The Modi Government’s Alacrity on Display

When the virus proliferated during early 2020, India was invariably perceived as the weak link, with no easy choices on hand. No wonder then that Prime Minister Modi bit the bullet and opted for a stringent national lockdown, albeit abruptly declared—something only a courageous statesman like him could muster the gumption to do, while being fully sentient of the dislocating impact it would exert on livelihoods in a country where small and medium sector enterprises are the lifeline to the predominantly informally employed workforce and where many of its people are still poor and reliant on state emanating hand-outs. However, it was the necessary evil to ensure primal survival at a time when the pandemic was taking hold in urban centres, with the impending potential to infiltrate and swaddle deep stretches of mofussil towns and the vast countryside, a spectre which—if realised—would bring to bear doomsday scenarios that were part of Western media commentaries.

The first ingress of the strain was an outcome of mobility, as was evident in the dint of India’s industrial centres and globally connected urban hubs across the West and the South of the nation, gripped by the Wuhan virus. Despite the withering criticism of how the government had cataclysmically stalled the economy and society, which led to a hyperbolic tout of the biggest episode of intra-nation human migration in conventional understandings of peacetime. Such a sudden measure, which certainly could be improved upon in hindsight, helped to subdue the virus and its ominous morbidity. The Indian government was seen to be proactive and earnest through the early months of the lockdown, fire-fighting on multiple fronts—from the Prime Minister assuming leadership in reaching out to provincial dispensations led by political outfits of varied ideological stripes and keeping them on the same page; the Home Minister, in coordination with states, ably helming a 24×7 War Room to mitigate, to the extent possible, the egregious effects of essential supplies and logistics shortages nationwide; whilst the Ministers of External Affairs, Health and Civil Aviation collectively stewarded the process of outbound and inbound evacuations of foreign nationals and Indians stranded abroad, under meticulously conducted diagnostic testing and surveillance methods. And all this as India confronted, unlike any other, an unprovoked stealthy and savage Chinese military putsch in the Himalayan reaches.

The economy plausibly tanked, enduring the sharpest of contractions across advanced and emerging nations alike. However, in a country where over 90% of the workforce is engaged in informal employment, the equation squaring lives and livelihoods is a devil and the deep blue sea proposition, tempered in the hard prudence that, if lives are spared, then livelihoods can be recouped, but not vice versa. The government did inject an unprecedented fiscal stimulus that stood at close to 20% of GDP, compartmentalised into curated economic sectors handholding. Besides, the government sought to shore-up rudimentary subsistence, through public welfare support measures, aimed at ensuring food security and minimal income to the impoverished.

While liberal Western nations were seen engaging in a self-serving cannibalised scramble for virus counteracting equipment and logistics from one another, not only did India ramp up imports from all possible avenues but also tasked entrepreneurs at home to supplement inventories of medical gear. The country actually cared for its South Asian neighbours as well, in including their citizens within India’s own exertions to bring forlorn nationals back, offering technical expertise and assistance, and frontloading commonly pooled financial assistance through the SAARC mechanism. All this, when long-standing iconic experiments at integration, such as the European Union, failed to address the urgent existential requirements of its members, leading to a public admission and apology from no less than the European Commission President of having failed its members at a juncture of the existential reckoning.

The result of the foregoing was that India which saw its first few hundred cases in March 2020, just prior to the lockdown, through executing months of compulsive detachment of human mobility and socialisation, ensured that the daily caseload surge did not exceed one hundred thousand, widely surmised as a significantly depressed nationwide statistic in the context of India’s population. And even then, the federal government was not letting its guard down, procuring substantial numbers of ventilators from the PM Cares Fund and innovatively re-purposing the berths in its rail-coaches into emergency hospital beds, should the need arise. No wonder that while public resentment and rancour could have been comprehensible (and was evident across leaderships around the world), there was little ire against Modi as his approval ratings remained steady, both empirically and anecdotally, a vindication that his regime—despite the constraints—was seen as exhausting every sinew to tide over the unforeseen public health exigency and prioritising precious lives at all costs. The fact that the first wave subsided, with just about one hundred and fifty thousand fatalities, just under ten million overall cases, and with the positivity threshold not scaling the double-digit mark, it was a remarkable stave-off by any stretch of imagination, befuddling opinionated sections, at home and abroad.

The Falter and Flounder of the Second Wave 2021: Flat-Footed and Gloating Modi Regime

What then explains India’s current flounder with the second wave of the pandemic, and where precisely did it falter? Simply put, the country sleep-walked itself into the crystal ball gaze of delusional grandeur and gloating comfort, failing to maintain its guard of high vigilance and sobriety about the pandemic and its virulent manifestations.

It’s true that what’s struck India is not any ordinary tidal-wave that has been sweeping around the globe, but a tsunami of monstrous proportions borne out by the current double mutant variant of the original virus and its steep trajectory of ascent up the charts of daily caseload and fatalities. Notwithstanding the limited numbers of air-bubbles that India kept operating with foreign nations through the turn of 2020, which always kept the potential for further globally ruminating strains, such as the UK, Brazilian and South African variants, to make their way into India, this has also shown up the fact that this largely airborne pathogen strain has transmissibility legs of its own, transcending sovereign frontiers.

Hence, it belies reasoning that India should have lowered its guard so soon after taming the first wave and deluded itself into believing that further waves would not be upon it, when they were scarring geographies around the globe, with a messaging to this effect coming from no less than Prime Minister Modi when he was seen to churlishly boast at the time of India’s vaccine roll-out that the country was effectively on path to vanquish the virus. Such fallacious notions, signalled from the top, got mistakenly internalised in the disposition of provincial administrations, keen to return to securing livelihoods and economic recoup. They went back to grossly relaxing the effective enforcement of COVID protocols for testing and surveillance, as society in general relapsed back into reckless demeanours rooted in flagrant disregard of social distancing.

While the federal government would like us to believe that they were persisting with high levels of vigilance, the hard facts inform otherwise. Why was no tangible action taken to buttress oxygen requirements when limitations on this score in the event of a second wave hitting us were flagged from various forums, be it the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health late last year or even by the Prime Minister’s Task Force of medical experts? Why was such a response left to the hapless states when it is public knowledge that they are in no position to bolster capacities in this regard? And if it was indeed the state’s remit to accomplish this, then, what message does the nationally ruling BJP send when close to half of the states within the Union are governed by it? Why could the Prime Minister—who did to his credit conduct multiple interactions with Chief Ministers to ensure coordination during the first wave of the pandemic—not convene even one such online meeting with CMs to forewarn them of this potentially impending oxygen crisis during the early part of 2021 but has rather chosen to hide in the refuge of some innocuous communications having been sent to the States?

If this wasn’t bad enough, what compounded matters was how the ruling BJP lead the charge of returning to expedient politicking, with the Prime Minister, the Home Minister and most ministers within Cabinet blissfully preoccupied with campaigning in provincial round of elections amid the case surge in Maharashtra and Karnataka. Even if one were to concede that PM Modi had a handle on things, given his sterling ability to work long hours and blend party work and governmental duties, it still made for callous optics. Irony was rich in a specific instance when in a recent address to the nation the Prime Minister was preaching strict conformity with COVID protocols when earlier that day none of that was on offer or observance at his multiple electioneering rallies.

No wonder that the states that went to the hustings are progressively reporting rising incidence of COVID cases, which are expected to peak much later than those early bird states, in an eclectic country, where the concept of a nationally discernible peak in cases is quite an understandable misnomer.

It must objectively be said that the magnitude of India’s raging second wave would have overwhelmed any healthcare system across the world, particularly on evidence of how much more acclaimed ecosystems have literally been on their knees worldwide. India’s skeletal healthcare apparatus is a worst kept secret with a nationally indexed bed to patient ratio of 1:2,000 that accentuates further when scrutinized in the Hindi heartland states, such as Bihar, where the patient to doctor ratio stands at a disbelieving 1:44,000 and more.

But this spectre has not been the function of the seven years of PM Modi’s ascent to power—it is the despicable upshot of seven decades of apathetic and malignant neglect, of what should routinely be a building block foundation of modern-day country and society. To Mr. Modi’s credit, his seven years in power have thus far initiated a salutary change in this realm, if only a small morph within the larger picture, where the domain of ‘Health’, in terms of its growth, management and superintendence, is constitutionally enjoined as a subject of competence for the ‘State’ (provinces within India).

Since 2014, the federal government sanctioned the centrally funded establishment of no less than fourteen All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) facilities across different states, eleven of which have duly been commissioned and are now operational. Besides, it is PM Modi’s empathetic concern for the less privileged that has seen his government enshrine arguably the world’s largest healthcare insurance regime for the poorest and underprivileged sections of the Indian society, to the tune of Rs. 500,000 of medical treatment expenses annually across state and private hospitals alike. Empirical evidence is replete with anecdotal reports of scores of individuals being the benefactors of this path-breaking scheme, which has been extended so as to cover COVID-19 treatment too.

These measures would at least facilitate combatting the scourge of a virus. Besides, we had the Prime Minister avail this unfortunate transpiring to brandish the imperative for dedicated epidemiological and virology infrastructure within hospitals and across states, making this an integral element of his ‘AtmaNirbharata’ (National Self-Reliance) strategy.

From the time the first wave had been parried, provincial Chief Ministers, particularly those from within the opposition ranks, were seen clamouring for greater autonomy to tend to this crisis, resisting the proclivities of the Prime Minister to over-centralise matters as part of his seemingly authoritarian propensities and an impulse to arrogate all credit but scapegoat stakeholders for blame. While there is merit in these behavioural styles of PM Modi, no doubt, the States were pursuing greater agency and ownership in the crisis, as if they were gilt-edged exponents at taming such catastrophe-verging situations. Mahatma Gandhi famously averred that India lives in its villages. As an extrapolation to that, it can be argued that the economy story of India is quintessentially a measure of states administering themselves as models of good governance and, notwithstanding their perpetually cash-strapped orgies, ramping up and leveraging the inherent capacities and operational capabilities.

Yet, outside of certain creditable examples which can be characterised as aberrational outliers, both in normal conditions and even during this pandemic (Kerala during the 2020 wave; Uttar Pradesh during the current 2021 wave etc.), the wherewithal of states and their administrative machinery are, for the most part, woefully inadequate.

Hence, it comes as no surprise that hospitals within states are fund-lacking, even when it comes to the rudimentary necessity of in-house oxygen plants, although their presence would still have been insufficient. Since the metastasising oxygen crisis has been upon India, the federal government has turbo-charged into action, ordering the commissioning of close to six hundred huge oxygen plants across the country through the auspices of the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), both federal agencies, besides deploying all three services within the armed forces to bridge the gaps and engineer expeditious mobility of oxygen supplies across the country. However, this basically means playing onerous catch-up with a dynamic virus spreading like wild-fire.

As a matter of fact, politicking even in times of such monumental crises is not unique to democracies. Since the onset of the pandemic, one has witnessed crass politicks playing itself out in the U.S. where the Trump White House constantly feuded with Democratic Party Governors; down South in Brazil where President Bolsonaro has been in running battles with the leftist ideology disposed consortium of provincial chieftains over requiting logistics from China; and even in Australia, where Prime Minister Morrison has locked horns with Labour Premiers in States. In India, however, the mutual blame game between the federal government and state authorities has been deeply agonizing. In fact, the Courts have had to intervene and order, including in a matter where the plea for redressal was brought by the BJP government in Karnataka against its own party’s federal government, alleging erroneous submissions by the Modi government about oxygen quantum delivered.

The ‘Vaccine Maitri’ Initiative: Two Clever by Half or Reaffirming Indian Exceptionalism?

There is no gainsaying that the global entities, united in a salutary manner, managed to eruditely stumble upon a vaccine in a flat 327 days, an unprecedented occurrence in itself. However, at the cost of sounding cynical, it may be said that while wide-ranging cooperation was proactively forthcoming when it came to discovering a vaccine, questions need to be asked whether such collegial actions have persisted since, as regards ensuring relatively equitable vaccine access to humanity in its grapple against this universal threat?

Needless to say, the unqualified answer is a resounding no. Amidst the richer countries paying lip service to the notion of vaccine equity (such that the WHO-mandated COVAX alliance has been floundering in its bid to proffer accessibility to impoverished societies at affordable prices), India has gone out on a limb and stayed true to its internalised belief that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”, anchored in its innately espoused philosophical moorings of Vasudaiva Kutumbakam, ‘the entire Universe is One Family’, implying that we are all in this together.

Hence, as the US and China showed themselves up as exponents of vaccine nationalism and hegemony alike, India, since the early going, has leveraged the fact of cogent pharmacological research, innovation and production facilities, leading to its early roll-out of the vaccine, partaking its production with the immediate small neighbours and low-income and least developed nations across the broad swathe of the Global South.

But it would be a mistaken notion to harbour that such munificence by New Delhi simply fulfils its hallowed good neighbourly duty under the self-avowed ‘Neighbourhood First’ strategy. Instead, it could be perceived as an effective ploy at substantive soft-power projection vis-à-vis China, whose travails surrounding vaccine efficacy were out in the open or, for that matter, as a bounden obligation to the COVAX initiative that India had enthusiastically signed on to and that had come at the expense of Indian lives and well-being.

The numbers speak for themselves with over six million vials heading outbound to some six dozen countries, yet constituting only about 30% of the total inoculation consummated at home till date. At a time when the most fiscally and logistically privileged and majorly urbanised countries with significantly smaller demographics have struggled to vaccinate portions of their populaces, India, since rolling out its vaccinations on 16th January 2021, has eclipsed 180 million jabs in arms, with close to a quarter of such shots leading to full vaccination of its citizenry.

If anything, during the disbursal of vaccines abroad—in many cases mandated on the drug co-development conditionality, such as the Serum Institute of India’s (SIIs) co-venture with Oxford University and AstraZeneca—the domestic pace of vaccinations was far from impacted, as it only kept steadily gathering steam through the months of January to April 2021.

Critics and detractors have fronted legitimate questions, as to whether the Modi government should have exercised greater sagacity in adequately planning for spiking contingencies at home rather than get carried away by its own reputation of being the “pharmacy of the world” preceding itself on this front. But then, it’s this generosity and exceptionality of genuine concern for humanity, manifested by India, not just on vaccines lately but harking all the way back to hydroxychloroquine and medical logistics supplies that is now seeing India receive effusive logistical assistance from all parts of the globe, cutting across ideological juxtapositions and political persuasions—not out of any kind of patronizing empathy by those seemingly better-off at present, instead, out of a sense of camaraderie for and solidarity with a friend and partner in distress.

The incumbent gross shortfall in vaccine doses, which has materially slowed the incidence of vaccination from an average of about 2.5 to 3 million a day, possibly allowing India to attain the herd-immunity threshold deep into 2022, to well under a million since the middle of April. This is expected to endure for at least a couple of months, and certainly some elements of disjointed coordination between the government and vaccine suppliers, as mismanagement and crappy politics between the federal and provincial dispensations, have to ascribe the blame.

While India has been remarkable, outside of the SII-Oxford AstraZeneca COVISHIELD vaccine, in rolling out its own indigenous vaccine COVAXIN developed collaboratively by Bharat Biotech and the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) and reckoned by none less than the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Dr. Anthony Fauci as clinically effective in subduing the double mutant B.1.617 virus strain, its negotiations for sourcing internationally developed vaccines has been a cumbersome process. Notwithstanding India’s early embrace of the Russian Sputnik V in a co-production arrangement with Reddy’s Laboratories, it has only just seen the light of day, geared for going commercial and wider dissemination across India from next month. Negotiations with Pfizer have been running rings over the drug company’s insistence on obtaining prior ‘indemnification’ from potential lawsuits arising out of the abuse of the drug. Besides, there are storage issues and wider conveyance. India’s oldest private vaccine developer ‘Biological E’, the pioneer of the Tetanus and Hepatitis-B vaccines, is in advanced stages of co-development with its peer partner, the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, of what is prospectively anticipated to be 300 million doses of the most affordable of jabs.

This potential breakthrough could be intriguing, adding grist to the mill of what has been the inaugural Quad Leaders’ Summit takeaway of collaborative harness of India’s production capacities, in pursuance of a billion affordable doses, for lower-income ASEAN and South-Pacific island nations.

Besides, multiple independent corporate entities have come forward, evincing interest to undertake the production of Bharat Biotech’s COVAXIN doses, these being subject to requirements of intellectual property transfer and bio-safety conditions. Companies find themselves in uncharted territory in terms of being saddled with unprecedented demand and are actively foraging for decentralised production facilities across States within the Indian Union, with principal candidates being Maharashtra and Gujarat.

The vaccine gap has also been in the spotlight on account of the Prime Minister’s virtually left-field move to announce an expansion in vaccine eligibility for those in the age group of 18-44 in a markedly young country where 65% of population boasts a mean age of 35 years and under and where only a seventh of the population has received some vaccination, with only 3% fully inoculated.

With estimations of exponential inventories of vaccine doses to close to two billion expected to steadily file through August through December 2021, it is expected that India which has thus far been a pace-setter alongside the U.S. in inoculating 180 million of its citizens, will regain momentum and accomplish a critical mass in vaccinations across its poorest communities and village landscapes by 2022.

Drawing Conclusions

Amidst the enveloping penumbra of gloom and doom and the tendency for Indians to deprecate and disparage themselves—much more than those abroad—it’s time to enliven spirits with interspersing news that holds keys to subduing the pandemic, a second time. India is the only country to soon be able to boast half a dozen vaccines and more, and multiple indigenous ones, which augurs well for its humungous vaccination drive going forward.

In much the same way as the world marvels at how India counts its federal electoral returns within a day, they would be amazed by the pace of inoculations by the time we are done and dusted. Just recently, India’s DRDO in collaboration with Reddy’s Laboratories has launched an orally administrable anti-COVID drug that is billed as a potential game-changer. The manner in which the world has responded so effusively and of its own volition to ameliorate India’s anguish is a testament to how the Indian pandemic diplomacy has stood on a pedestal, navigating through strategic competition, ideological prejudice and nationalist hegemony by prioritizing human beneficence. The daily case numbers are beginning to plateau and decline, albeit in the sobering knowledge that they are dismounting from a four-fold threshold higher than that during the apogee of the first wave. This would involve enduring the hard paces. And all this, as informed speculations over a third wave, this time directly impacting the kids, in the same vein as this second wave has disproportionately impinged on the youth, stares us in the face, demanding greater sagacity, smoother coordination within government and between governments and a more robust preparedness from the ruling elites and the political class across the entire spectrum of persuasions. Besides, if Mr. Modi—in whom the Indian people repose unparalleled faith, for his irreproachable assiduousness, integrity, and national commitment—can reign in his image-building and cult persona impulses, all shall be well in time.

From our partner RIAC

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The Post-US Withdrawal Afghanistan: India, China and the ‘English Diplomacy’

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The recent developments in Afghanistan, the impatient Tri-axis and the emphatic India at SCO, with the ‘English Diplomacy’ at display that tends to blunt the Chinese aggressiveness in South China Sea mark a new power interplay in the world politics. It also shows why the US went for AUKUS and how it wants to focus on the Indo-Pacific.

Afghanistan has turned out to be the most incandescent point of world politics today deflecting the eyes from the South China Sea and Gaza Strip. What is more startling is the indifferent attitude United States has shown to the other stakeholders in the war torn state. While Brexit appears to have created fissure in the European Union the AUKUS effects further marginalisation of France and India against the US-British and QUAD understandings. The vacuum that US have created in Afghanistan has invited several actors willing to expand their energy access to central Asia and Afghanistan provides an important bridge in between. The TAPI economics (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline) and huge Indian investments are endangered by the Afghan security question and make it imminent for India to stay in Afghanistan as a reckoning force.

The Taliban and the Troika

While the Russo-Chinese and Pakistani engagement with the Taliban’s takeover was visible the US exit has invited the wrath of other stakeholders like India, Saudi Arabia and Iran. India is significantly affected because of its huge investments of over 3 billion dollars over two decades in Afghanistan that would become target of the orthodox retrogressive Taliban regime. The government of India’s stand on Afghanistan is that an ‘Afghan peace process should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled. Any political settlement must be inclusive and should preserve the socio-economic and political gains of the past 19 years. India supports a united, democratic and sovereign Afghanistan. India is deeply concerned about the increase in violence and targeted killings in Afghanistan. India has called for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire’(MEA).

However, the takeover by Taliban that endangers India’s strategic and capital interests has made it pro-active in the state. Probably for the first time in Afghan history, India has shown aggressive tones against the militant government which may create problem for Kashmir in the longer run. The Pakistani air force’s engagement over the Panjashir assault by Taliban has unravelled the larger plans of destabilisation in South Asia.

In the meantime China has unequivocally expressed its willingness, as was expected to work with Taliban. The visit of Taliban delegation, led by Abdul Ghani Baradar who also heads the office of Taliban at Doha, met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials in Tianjin, on July 28, 2021. The visit followed the Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Kureshi’s visit to Beijing and unravelled how the two states have been supporting the Talibani cause. Although, China has its own perceptions about Xinjiang and Mr. Wang even told the Taliban “to draw a line” between the group and terror organisations, specifically the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which has carried out attacks in Xinjiang. Russia too has shown interest in Taliban and it didn’t plan to evacuate its embassy at Kabul. Its foreign ministry official Zamir Kabulov said that Russia will carefully see how responsibly they (Taliban) govern the country in the near future. And based on the results, the Russian leadership will draw the necessary conclusions.

The little Indo-Russian engagements over Afghanistan have minimised the scope of cooperation over the decades now. Although, Russia has been trying to follow a balancing policy between India and Pakistan yet its leanings towards the latter is manifest from its recent policies. “The extent of Russia-Pakistan coordination broadened in 2016, as Russia, China, and Pakistan created a trilateral format to discuss stabilizing Afghanistan and counterterrorism strategy. In December 2016, Russia, China, and Pakistan held talks on combating Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), which were widely criticized in the U.S. for excluding the Afghan government.” (Ramani). The deliberate neglect of Afghan government and Indian role reveals the neo-Russian policy in South Asia that de-hyphenates India and Pakistan and sees Pakistan through the lens of BRI and at the cost of North-South Corridor. The Chinese and Russian belief that by supporting Taliban they will secure security for their disturbed territories and escape from terrorism appears to be unrealistic keeping in view the Taliban’s characteristics which are chameleon like i.e. political, organizational and jihadi at the same time looking for appropriate opportunities.

Is it the Post-Brexit Plan?

The Brexit ensures a better space for Britain; at least this is what Brits believe, in international politics following the future US overseas projects. However, it for sure annoys some of its serious allies with the new takes. The announcement of the AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) pact, a historic security pact in the Asia-Pacific to contain China is an important step in this direction. The Brexit and the US-withdrawal seen together mark a shift in US policy perception of Asia that aims at Asia Pacific more as compared to Central Asia. It has not only betrayed India in Afghanistan but also France through AUKUS which sees an end to its multibillion dollar deal with Australia. France now shows a stronger commitment to support India in its moves against Taliban and Pakistan’s interventions.

President Macron recalled French ambassadors for consultations after the AUKUS meet that dropped France deliberately from the major maritime security deal. The French anguish is not about its absence in the deal by the Canberra, Washington and London but being an allied nation, its neglect in the secret deal. “The announcement ended a deal worth $37bn (£27bn) that France had signed with Australia in 2016 to build 12 conventional submarines. China meanwhile accused the three powers involved in the pact of having a “Cold War mentality”(Schofield 2021). It also reminds one of the Roosevelt’s efforts at truncating French arms in Asia, especially in Indo-China and the consequent sequence of betrayals by the US. AUKUS also symbolises the ‘English diplomacy’ of the English speaking states just like the Five Eyes (FVEY), an intelligence alliance consisting of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Started around 1946 the member countries are parties to the multilateral UKUSA Agreement, a treaty for joint cooperation in signals intelligence. Recently there have been voices for taking India, Japan and South Korea also into its fold to strengthen the contain China job.

The Wildered QUAD

While the first ever in-person QUAD summit approaches near, the announcement of AUKUS shows haze that prevails over the US decision making. President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian PM Scott Morrison and Japan’s Yoshihide Suga meet at the White House for the summit on September 24, 2021. This follows the virtual meet held in March 2021. How apposite it would be to declare a maritime deal at a time when the QUAD meet is about to take place with the same motives and plans, notwithstanding the fact that QUAD has a wider platform for discussion like climate change, cyberspace, pandemic and Indo-Pacific. Is there an uncertainty over the realisation of QUAD? However, AUKUS  unravels the US intentions of first line preferences and second line associates in its future projects that will further marginalise its allies like France, Germany and many other states in future.

SCO

At SCO meet at Dushanbe India has unequivocally announced its view of the situation that takes Taliban as a challenge to peace and development in Afghanistan and South Asia. Prime Minister Modi remarked that the first issue is that the change of authority in Afghanistan was not inclusive and this happened without negotiation. This raises questions on the prospects of recognition of the new system. Women, minorities and different groups have not been given due representation. He also insisted on the crucial role that UN can play in Afghanistan. India’s investment in the Iranian port of Chabahar and the International North-South Corridor along with TAPI are central to its argument on the recent developments in Afghanistan. Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar had also remarked in July 2021 that the landlocked Central Asian countries can benefit immensely by connecting with the huge market of India and the future of Afghanistan cannot be its past and that the world must not let the new generation of Afghans down (Hindustan Times). The Indian message is clear and received huge support at Dushanbe and India is poised to play a greater role in Afghanistan, where the US and Russia have failed miserably.

The Internal Dynamics

The internal dynamics in Afghanistan presage a government by uncertainty in the coming months as Sirajudin Haqqani of Pak supported Haqqani network, captures Mulla Baradar, the man who settled the deal with US at Doha. It appears from the Pakistani backed government of Haqqani that Baradar has been dumped for his commitment for inclusive government expected to be pro-west against the Sino-Pakistan expectations. The US reluctance to remain engaged in the troubled region marks a shift in US foreign policy but the exclusion of its allies from Indo-Pacific plan are bound to bring new engagements in world power politics. While US dumped Afghans France and Israel appear as new hopes for Indian led moves against the undemocratic terrorist forces in Afghanistan.

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Opposing Hindutava: US conference raises troubling questions

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Controversy over a recent ‘Dismantling Global Hindutava’ conference that targeted a politically charged expression of Hindu nationalism raises questions that go far beyond the anti-Muslim discriminatory policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and ruling party.

The conference and responses to it highlight a debilitating deterioration in the past two decades, especially since 9/11, of the standards of civility and etiquette that jeopardize civil, intelligent, and constructive debate and allow expressions of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes to become mainstream.

Organizers of the conference that was co-sponsored by 53 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers, insisted that they distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutava, Mr. Modi’s notion of Hindu nationalism that enables discrimination against and attacks on India’s 200 million Muslims.

The distinction failed to impress critics who accused the organizers of Hinduphobia. Some critics charged that the framing of the conference demonstrated a pervasiveness of groupthink in academia and an unwillingness to tackle similar phenomena in other major religions, particularly Islam.

The campaign against the conference appeared to have been organized predominantly by organizations in the United States with links to militant right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in India, including some with a history of violence. The conference’s most militant critics threatened violence against conference speakers and their families, prompting some participants to withdraw from the event.

Opponents of political Islam noted that Western academia has not organized a similar conference about the politicization of the faith even though powerful states like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have lobbied Western capitals against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Turkish and Qatari supporters with notable successes in France, Austria, Belgium and Britain.

Academia was likely to have been hesitant to tackle political Islam because Islamophobia is far more prevalent than Hinduphobia.

Moreover, perceptions of political Islam, are far more complex and convoluted. Islam is frequently conflated with political expressions and interpretations of the faith run a gamut from supremacist and conservative to more liberal and tolerant. They also lump together groups that adhere and respect the election process and ones that advocate violent jihad.

Scholars and analysts declared an end to political Islam’s heyday with the military coup in Egypt in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother, who was elected president in Egypt’s first and only free and fair poll. Political Islam’s alleged swansong loomed even larger with this year’s setbacks for two of the most moderate Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Morocco as well as hints that Turkey may restrict activities of Islamists operating in exile from Istanbul.

A more fundamental criticism of the framing of the Hindutava conference is its failure to put Hindutava in a broader context.

That context involves the undermining of the social cohesion of societies made up of collections of diverse ethnic and religious communities since Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The attacks fueled the rise of ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism not only in the Hindu world but also in the worlds of other major religions.

These include politicized ultra-conservative Islam, politicized Evangelism and Buddhist nationalism. Right-wing religious nationalism in Israel, unlike Islamism and politicized Evangelism, is shaped by ultra-nationalism rather than religious ultra-conservatism.

The worlds of religious ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism are often mutually reinforcing.

Scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss’s assessment of the impact of Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States is equally true for India or Europe.

“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism: as dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, Al-Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream,” Ms. Miller-Idriss said.

“Almost overnight, the United States and European countries abounded with precisely the fears that the far-right had been trying to stoke for decades,” she added.

The comparison of politically charged militant nationalist and ultra-conservative expressions of diverse religions takes on added significance in a world that has seen the emergence of civilizationalist leaders.

Scholar Sumantra Bose attributes the rise of religious nationalism in non-Western states like Turkey and India to the fact that they never adopted the Western principle of separation of state and church.

Instead, they based their secularism on the principle of state intervention and regulation of the religious sphere. As a result, the rejection of secularism in Turkey and India fits a global trend that conflates a dominant religious identity with national identity.

Sarah Kamali, the author of a recently published book that compares militant white nationalists to militant Islamists in the United States, notes similar patterns while drawing parallels between far-right xenophobes and militant Islamists.

Militant Islamists’ “sense of victimhood […] is similar to that of their White nationalist counterparts in that [it] is constructed and exploited to justify their violence… Both mutually – and exclusively – target America for the purpose of claiming the nation as theirs and theirs alone, either as a White ethno-state or as part of a global caliphate,” Ms. Kamali writes.

Similarly, the Taliban defeat of a superpower energized militant Islamists, as well as proponents of Hindutava, with Islamophobic narratives spun by Mr. Modi’s followers gaining new fodder with the assertion that India was being encircled by Muslim states hosting religious extremists.

Modi is essentially helping the recruitment of…jihadist groups by taking such a hard, repressive line against the Islamic community in India, who are now being forced to see themselves being repressed,” said Douglas London, the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief for South and South-West Asia until 2019.

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South Asia

Panjshir – the last stronghold of democracy in Afghanistan

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The Taliban’s rapid advance in Afghanistan has briefly stalled only in the face of strong resistance mounted by the people of the country’s recalcitrant mountainous province of Panjshir. Whoever controls the region’s passes controls the routes leading to China and Tajikistan, but to seize this mountain valley and, most importantly, to keep it permanently under control has always been a problem for all invaders. Eager to let the international community see for the first time in 40 years a united Afghanistan as a sign of their final victory, the radical Islamists were prepared to make any sacrifices, including filling the approaches to the Panjshir Valley up with dead bodies. Moreover, the Taliban’s longtime ally Pakistan, which, regardless of its status of an ally of the United States, has provided them with direct military support. In fact, Islamabad admitted its less than successful role when it proposed signing a truce to find and take out the bodies of its special Ops forces who had died during the attack on the valley. However, drones flown by Pakistani operators, professional commandos (possibly once trained by the Americans), air support and other pleasant gifts from the allies eventually bore fruit letting the Taliban be photographed in front of the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Massoud Sr., the famous “Lion of Panjshir,” who controlled the valley from 1996 to 2001. The Islamists also took control of the province’s central city of Bazarak.

Having deprived the province much of its Internet access, the radicals, who control most of the Afghan territory, found it easier to wage an information war. Their claims of victories were now more difficult to contest, even though information about their retreat did reach the outside world. Reflective of the heavy losses suffered for the first time by the Taliban and their allies – the Haqqani Network and other remnants of al-Qaeda, as well as by the regular Pakistani army is the brief truce arranged by Islamabad. Looks like the mountain passes leading to Panjshir were literally filled up with corpses…

As for Massoud Jr., the young lion of Panjshir, and his supporters, they retreated to the mountains. In fact, they had nowhere to fall back to. The problem of Afghanistan is its ethnic diversity. Thus, the country is home to 23 percent of ethnic Tajiks, most of whom live in the Panjshir Valley. However, the Taliban rely mainly on the Pashtuns, who account for over 50 percent of the country’s population. As for the new masters of Afghanistan, they are ready to carry out ethnic cleansings and even commit outright genocide in order to bring the valley into submission. To make this happen they are going to resettle there their fellow Pashtun tribesmen. Local men aged between 12 and 50 are already being taken away and, according to the National Resistance Front, no one has seen them again. However, due to the information blockade, the Taliban will not hesitate to refute such facts. One thing is clear: Massoud’s Tajik fighters and the government troops that joined them are fighting for their lives, and there will be no honorable surrender!

The main question now is whether the young lion of Panjshir will receive the same support as his father once did, or will find himself without ammunition and food. After all, the Taliban leaders have reached certain agreements with the United States. Suffice it to mention the numerous remarks made, among others, by President Biden himself about the Taliban now being different from what they were 20 years ago.

But no, the Taliban`s remain the same – they have only hired new PR people. Meanwhile, hating to admit their defeat, Brussels and Washington will have to engage in a dialogue with those who are responsible for the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and for the numerous terrorist attacks in Europe. The Taliban are pretending to make minor cosmetic concessions. Minor indeed, since they are still depriving women of the opportunity to work and study, destroying higher and secondary education and brutally clamping down on people who simply do not want to live according to religious norms.

The United States is actually helping the “new-look” Taliban. Their potential opponents, including the famous Marshal Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, left the country under various guarantees, and Washington is trying to keep them from any further participation in the conflict. Democratic politicians naively believe that by creating an Islamic state and ending the protracted civil war in Afghanistan the Taliban will ensure stability in the region and will not move any further. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan do not think so and are strengthening their borders and preparing to protect their Afghan compatriots, because they know full well that the Taliban`s are not a national political party; they are a radical Islamist ideology.

It knows no borders and spreads like a cancerous tumor, destroying all pockets of Western culture. It can only be stopped by force. However, the two decades of US military presence in Afghanistan showed that Washington, which quickly took control of the country in 2001, simply had no strategy to keep it. The Afghans were given nothing that would appear to them more attractive than the ideas of radical Islam. As a result, the few Afghans who embrace European values are fleeing the country, and those who, like Massoud Jr., decided to fight for their freedom, now risk being left to face their enemy all by themselves.

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