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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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South Asia

India’s multi-alignment: the origins, the past, and the present

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In the initial two decades following India’s independence, India’s foreign policy was heavily determined by the personal predilections of its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his protégé VK Krishna Menon, both influenced by British socialism. Nehru himself handled the external affairs portfolio until his death in 1964.

The policy of ‘non-alignment’ which the duo initiated in India’s foreign policy gained world-wide attention since early 1950s, which later became a full-fledged movement and forum of discussion in 1961 (NAM) that consisted of developing and newly decolonised nations from different parts of the world, primarily from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

But, the policy never meant isolationism or neutrality; rather it was conceived as a positive and constructive policy in the backdrop of the US-USSR Cold War, enabling freedom of action in foreign and security policies, even though many of the individual NAM member states had a tilt towards the Soviet Union, including India.

However, the lofty Nehruvian idealism of India’s foreign policy in its initial decades was not successful enough in integrating well into India’s security interests and needs, as it lost territories to both China and Pakistan during the period, spanning 1947 to 1964.

However, when Indira Gandhi assumed premiership, realism had strongly gained ground in India’s political, diplomatic and military circles, as evident in India’s successful intervention in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Even at that point of time, India still sticked on to the policy of non-alignment until it was no longer feasible in a changed international system that took shape following the end of the Cold War, which is where the origins of a new orientation in India’s foreign policy decision-making termed as ‘multi-alignment’ lies.

Today, India skilfully manoeuvres between China-led or Russia-led groupings such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), along with its involvement in US-led groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or the Quad), in which Japan and Australia are also members.

Militarily though, India is still not part of any formal treaty alliance, and is simultaneously part of a diverse network of loose and issue-specific coalitions and regional groupings, led by adversarial powers, with varying founding objectives and strategic imperatives.

Today, non-alignment alone can no longer explain the fact that recently India took part in a US-chaired virtual summit meeting of the Quad in March 2021 and three months later attended a BRICS ministerial meet, where China and Russia were also present.

So, how did India progress from its yesteryear policy of remaining equidistant from both the US-led and Soviet-led military blocs (non-alignment) and how did it begin to align with multiple blocs or centres of power (multi-alignment)? Answer to this question stretches three decades back.

World order witness a change, India adapts to new realities

1992 was a watershed year for Indian diplomacy. A year back, the Soviet Union, a key source of economic and military support for India till then, disappeared in the pages of history, bringing the Cold War to its inevitable end.

This brought a huge vacuum for India’s strategic calculations. Combined with a global oil shock induced by the First Gulf War of 1990 triggered a balance of payment crisis in India, which eventually forced the Indian government to liberalise and open up its economy for foreign investments and face competition.

India elected a pragmatic new prime minister in 1991 – PV Narasimha Rao. The vision he had in mind for India’s standing in the world was quite different from his predecessors. Then finance minister and later PM, Dr Manmohan Singh announced in the Indian Parliament, “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come”.

This was during his 1991 budget speech and it marked the beginning of building a new India where excessive control of the state on economic and business affairs seemed no longer a viable option.

At a time when Japan’s economy was experiencing stagnation, China was ‘peacefully rising’, both economically and industrially. The United States remained as the most influential power and security provider in Asia with its far-reaching military alliance network.

As the unipolar world dawned proclaiming the supremacy of the United States, PM Rao steered Indian foreign policy through newer pastures, going beyond traditional friends and partners like Russia.

In another instance, 42 years after India recognised Israel as an independent nation in 1950, both countries established formal diplomatic ties in 1992. Indian diplomats accomplished a task long overdue without affecting the existing amicable ties with Palestine.

In the recent escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict, it is worth noting that India took a more balanced stance at the United Nations, which was different from its previous stances that reflected an open and outright pro-Palestine narrative.

Today, India values its ties with Israel on a higher pedestal, even in areas beyond defence and counter-terrorism, such as agriculture, water conservation, IT and cyber security.

Breaking the ice with the giant across the Himalayas

China is a huge neighbour of India with which its shares a 3,488-km long un-demarcated border. Skirmishes and flare-ups resulting from difference in perception of the border and overlapping patrolling areas are a regular occurrence in this part of the world.

For the first time after the 1962 war with China, which resulted in a daunting defeat for India, diplomatic talks for confidence-building in the India-China border areas were initiated by the Rao government in 1993, resulting in the landmark Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the defacto border between India and China.

The agreement also provided a framework for ensuring security along the LAC between both sides until a final agreement on clear demarcation of the border is reached out. The 1993 agreement created an expert group consisting of diplomats and military personnel to advise the governments on the resolution of differences in perception and alignment of the LAC. The pact was signed in Beijing in September 1993, during PM Rao’s visit to China.

Former top diplomat of India Shivshankar Menon noted in one of his books that the 1993 agreement was “the first of any kind relating specifically to the border between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China … It formalized in an international treaty a bilateral commitment by India and China to maintain the status quo on the border. In effect, the two countries promised not to seek to impose or enforce their versions of the boundary except at the negotiating table.”

The 1993 pact was followed by another one in 1996, the Agreement on Military Confidence-Building Measures. The following two decades saw a number of agreements being signed and new working mechanisms being formalized, even though two major standoffs occurred in the Ladakh sector in 2013 and 2020 respectively and one in between in the Sikkim sector in 2017.

The agreements served as the basis upon which robust economic ties flourished in the 2000s and 2010s, before turning cold as a result of Chinese aggression of 2020 in Ladakh. However, the 1993 agreement still was a landmark deal as we consider the need for peace in today’s increasingly adversarial ties between the two nuclear-armed Asian giants.

Integrates with Asia’s regional architecture

Before the early 1990s, India’s regional involvements to its east remained limited to its socio-cultural ties, even though the region falls under India’s extended neighbourhood, particularly Southeast Asia. But, since 1992, when the Look East Policy (LEP) was formulated under the Rao government, India has been venturing into the region to improve its abysmal record of economic and trade ties with countries the region.

New Delhi began reaching out to the ASEAN or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1992 and was made a Sectoral Partner of the association in the same year. Thus, India kicked-off the process of its integration into the broader Asian regional architecture.

In 1996, India became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, a key platform for talks on issues of security in the wider Indo-Pacific region. India became ASEAN’s summit-level partner in 2002 and a strategic partner in 2012.

A free trade agreement (FTA) was agreed between ASEAN and India in 2010. And in 2014, the erstwhile LEP was upgraded into the Act East Policy (AEP). Today, the ASEAN region remains at the centre of India’s evolving Indo-Pacific policy.

Bonhomie with the superpower across the oceans, the United States

1998 was an important year, not just for India, but for the world. Until May that year, only the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council possessed nuclear capabilities. That year, ‘Buddha smiled again’ in the deserts of India’s Rajasthan state, as India under PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee successfully conducted a series of underground nuclear bomb tests, declaring itself a nuclear state, 24 years after its first nuclear test in 1974 code-named ‘Smiling Buddha’.

The move surprised even the US intelligence agencies, as India managed to go nuclear by bypassing keen US satellite eyes that were overlooking the testing site. Shortly after this, Pakistan also declared itself a nuclear state.

India’s nuclear tests invited severe international condemnation for New Delhi and badly affected its relationship with Washington, resulting in a recalling of its Ambassador to India and imposed economic sanctions, which was a big blow for India’s newly liberalised economy.

But, a bonhomie was reached between India and the US in a matter of two years and then US President Bill Clinton visited India in March 2000, the first presidential visit since 1978. The Indo-US Science and technology Forum was established during this visit and all the sanctions were revoked by following year.

Bharat Karnad, a noted Indian strategic affairs expert, notes in one his books that, “Vajpayee’s regime conceived of ‘strategic autonomy’ to mask its cultivating the US, which resulted in the NSSP”.

The Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) between the US and India was launched in January 2004 that covered wide ranging areas of cooperation such as nuclear energy, space, defence and trade. This newfound warmth in Indo-US relations was taken to newer heights with the conclusion of the landmark civil nuclear deal between 2005 and 2008.

Today, India is a key defence partner of the United States, having signed all the four key foundational pacts for military-to-military cooperation, the latest being the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geo-spatial cooperation, signed in October 2020. The two countries are key partners in the Quad grouping and share similar concerns about an increasingly assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Like his predecessors, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to cultivate this special relationship with the United States, reinforced by cooperation in the Quad grouping and also by constantly engaging a 4.8-million strong Indian diaspora in the United States.

The leaders of both countries, from Vajpayee to Modi and from Clinton to Trump have reciprocated bilateral visits to each other’s countries. And, India looks forward to the Biden-Harris administration for new areas of cooperation.

But, a recent military manoeuvre in April, this year, by a US Navy ship (which it calls a FONOP or Freedom of Navigation Operation) in India’s exclusive economic zone, off Lakshadweep coast, casted a shadow over this relations.

The US openly stated in social media that it entered the area without seeking India’s prior consent and asserted its navigational rights. This invited mixed reactions, as it was highly uncalled for. While some analysts consider it humiliating, others think that the incident occurred due to the difference of perceptions about international maritime law in both countries.

Today, along with the US, India skilfully manages its ‘historical and time-tested’ ties with Russia, a strategic foe of the US, and moves forward to purchase Russian-made weapon systems, such as the S-400 missile defence system, even after a threat of sanctions. But, in the past several years, India has been trying to diversify its defence procurements from other countries such as France and Israel and has been also promoting indigenisation of defence production.

A BRICS formula for responsible multilateralism

India is a founding member of the BRICS grouping, formalised in 2006, now consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – the emerging economies of that time with a potential to drive global economic growth and act as an alternate centre of power along with other groupings of rich countries such as the G-7 and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

India always stood for a responsible global multilateral system and rules-based order. Indian leaders have attended all summit-level meetings of BRICS since 2009 unfailingly. Last year, the summit took place in the backdrop of India-China border standoff in Ladakh, under Russia’s chair, a common friend of both countries, where the leaders of India and China came face-to-face for the first time, although in virtual format.

The primary focus of BRICS remains economic in nature, but it also takes independent stances on events occurring in different parts of the world. The grouping also established a bank to offer financial assistance for development projects known as the New Development Bank (NDB) based in Shanghai, China, in 2014, with an Indian as its first elected president.

BRICS also became the first multilateral grouping in the world to endorse the much-needed TRIPS waiver proposal jointly put forward by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to suspend intellectual property rights on Covid vaccine-making during the duration of the pandemic to provide developing countries that lack adequate technologies with means to battle the virus.

As India gears up to host this year’s upcoming BRICS summit, there is no doubt that being part of the grouping has served the country’s interests well.

Manoeuvring the SCO, along the shores of the Indo-Pacific

The SCO or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a regional organisation consisting of eight Eurasian powers, largest in the world both in terms of land area and population covered. It stands for promoting mutual cooperation and stability, where security issues can be freely discussed and conflicts are attempted to be resolved.

India is not a founding member of the SCO, which was created in 2001. Both India and Pakistan were admitted as full members in 2017. The grouping’s members also include Russia, China and four Central Asian countries, excluding Turkmenistan.

Sharing a common platform with Pakistan and China and the presence of a long-term friend, Russia, has helped India diplomatically in key occasions. Using the SCO platform, the existing differences between member states can be discussed and prevented from escalating into major conflicts.

This was evident most recently visible in 2020 when the foreign ministers of India and China agreed on a plan for the disengagement of Indian and Chinese troops from the LAC, as a major step in the diffusion of tensions in Ladakh that had erupted since May that year.

But, Russia and China collectively oppose the usage of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’, something that surfaced into political discourse with the famous speech delivered by the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in August 2007 in the Parliament of India, calling for “the confluence of two seas” and hinting at a new maritime continuum of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

It is in this context that the grouping of India, Japan, Australia and the United States gained prominence. The four Quad countries came together to offer humanitarian assistance following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the ambit of the grouping’s co-operation ranges from maritime security to cooperation in Covid vaccine production and distribution.

After a decade since the first joint naval exercise of the four Quad countries took place in 2007, the ASEAN’s Manila summit in 2017 provided a platform for the four countries to connect with each other and enhance consultations to revive the four-nation grouping.

The Quad has been raised to the summit level now with the March 2021 virtual summit, and has also conducted two joint naval exercises so far, one in 2007 and the other in 2020. This loose coalition is widely perceived as a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China.

India is the only country in the Quad that shares a land border with China. At the same time, India is also the only country that is not a formal security ally of the United States, meaning if India quits, the Quad ceases to exist, while the other three countries can still remain as treaty allies. However, setting the US aside, cooperation among the other three Quad partners has also been witnessing a boom since the last year.

India and Japan have expanded co-operation in third countries in India’s neighbourhood such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar to improve connectivity and infrastructure in the region and offer an alternative to China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which is perceived as having implications of a potential debt-trap aimed at fetching strategic gains.

Amid the pandemic, both the countries have joined hands with Australia to launch a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) to diversify key supply chains away from China.

However, India doesn’t perceive a free and open Indo-Pacific as an exclusionary strategy targeted at containing some country, rather as an inclusive geographic concept, where co-operation over conflict is possible. This was articulated by Prime Minister Modi in 2018 at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore.

Various additions were made to this view in later stages, as the concept evolved into a coherent form, representing New Delhi’s expanding neighbourhood. This vision aligns well with related initiatives such the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), aimed at improving maritime security, trade, connectivity and management of shared resources.

The future

For India, this is an era of complex multi-alignment, different from the Cold War-era international system, where multiple centres of power exist. At different time periods in the past, India has adapted well to the changing circumstances and power dynamics in the international system.

India’s strategic posture today, despite being aspirational, is to have good relations with all its neighbours, regional players, and the major powers, to promote rules-based order, and in the due process to find its own deserving place in the world.

In July, last year, India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar has made it clear that India ‘will never be part of an alliance system’, even though a tilt towards the US is increasingly getting visible, taking the China factor into account. Jaishankar also stated that global power shifts are opening up spaces for middle powers like India.

As the world tries to avoid another Cold War, this time between the United States and China, the competing geopolitics of the Eurasian landmass and the Indo-Pacific maritime region is poised to add up to New Delhi’s many dilemmas in the coming years.

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South Asia

The unrecognized demographic situation of West Bengal and consequences yet to occur

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World’s second large demographic nation India’s state West Bengal is now apparently residence of over 91 million population. At the same time, West Bengal is the fourth-most populous state and the fourteenth-large state by area in India. It is also the seventh-most populous country subdivision of the world. To get an insight into the present situation of West Bengal anyone has to look back in 1947 and later consequences. As being a prominent ethnocultural region of India, West Bengal faced political partition in the year 1947 in the wake of the transformation of British India into two separate independent nations India and Pakistan.  Under the process of partition, the then Bengal province was bifurcated into two segments. The predominately Hindu living area named West Bengal, a state of India, and the predominately-Muslim living area turned as East Bengal and after becoming a province of Pakistan that renamed as East Pakistan and later in 1971, the Muslim-majority country of Bangladesh.

In 1971 at the time of partition, the Muslim population of West Bengal counted 12% and the Hindu population of East Bengal remained 30%. While at present, with continuous Muslim immigration, Hindu persecution, conversions, and less production of offspring, West Bengal’s Muslim population has increased to 30% (up to 63% in some districts). While as per the counting report of 2011 Bangladesh’s Hindu population has decreased to 8%. When at the present situation for Hindus in Bangladesh is certainly dire, then life has become increasingly difficult for Hindus in West Bengal, having a Muslim-appeasing government. The governance of the elected government led to the demographic and cultural shifts in West Bengal. Prevailing of the same governance after the 2021 Bidhansabha election leads to the destruction of Hindu’s belonging everywhere in Bengal. The situation stood worse in the outskirts where media coverage is poor, compelling Hindu families to flee in adjacent states or to hide. A sizable number of Bengali Hindu families already preferred to shift to Assam.

Looking back as per a striking report of July 2014 by Times of India fewer children were born in Bengal and the prediction was there will be even fewer in the next generation. The 2011 Census shows a decadal growth of 13.84% in West Bengal, which was significantly below the national growth average of 17.7%, and the decadal growth was lowest ever and beaten only by the aftermath of the infamous Famine of  Bengal,1942.

While the retrospective study of the demography of West Bengal shows that the culturally dominant Hindu population in West Bengal during the first census of 1951 was around 19,462,706 and in the 2011 census it had increased to 64,385,546. While the percentage of the Hindu population in the state decreased from 78.45% in 1951 to 70.54% in the 2011 Census. The data sharply indicates fewer children birth within families of Hindus only while the population of Muslim counterparts tends to grow over time. Once considered a symbol of Indian culture, what has happened in Bengal for the last few decades is the indicator of West Bengal’s demographic future.

Starting from the diminishing of the Hindu culture, communal riots against the Hindus have started happening for quite some time and the situation has been that the banning of celebrating the festivals of Hindus has started in the last few years. Added to those the recent genocide of Hindus depicting a recent trend of population.

Back in 2015 the famous American journalist Janet Levy has written an article on Bengal and the revelations that have been made in it state that Bengal will soon become a separate Islamic country. Janet Levy claims in her article that civil war is going to start soon in Bengal after Kashmir. Which almost begun in recent times in the wake of the Bidhansabha Election of West Bengal.   

Ushering the prediction of Janet Levy mass Hindus will be massacred and demanded a separate country.

She cited the facts for his claim back in 2015 that the Chief Minister of West Bengal has recognized more than 10,000 madrassas who were privileged to receive funds from Saudi Arabia and made their degree eligible for a government job, money comes from Saudi and in those madrassas, Wahhabi bigotry is taught.

In the recent past Chief Minister started several Islamic city projects where Islamic people are taught also started a project to establish an Islamic city in West Bengal. It’s evident that Chief Minister has also declared various types of stipends for the Imams of mosques but no such stipends were declared for Hindus primarily. Janet Levy has given many examples around the world where terrorism, religious fanaticism, and crime cases started increasing as the Muslim population increased. With increasing population, a separate Sharia law is demanded at such places, and then finally it reaches the demand of a separate country.

Author and activist Taslima Nasreen once became reason to test the ground reality for West Bengal.

In 1993, Taslima Nasreen wrote a book ‘Lajja’ on the issue of atrocities on Hindus in Bangladesh and forcibly making them Muslims.

After writing the book, she had to leave Bangladesh facing the threat of bigotry. The author settled in Kolkata considering that she will be safe there as India is a secular country and the constitution also provided the freedom of expression. Eventually experienced the nightmare that Taslima Nasreen had to face a riot-like situation against her in 2007 in Kolkata. Even in a secular country like India, Muslims banned Taslima Nasreen with hatred. Fatwas issued to cut her throat on the secular land of India.

Upholding the threat the author was also attacked several times in different cities of the country.

But the secular Leftists never supported Taslima, not even the Trinamool government of West Bengal because the Muslims would get angry and the vote bank would face shaking.

That time first attempt was made in which Muslim organizations in West Bengal demanded the Islamic blasphemy (Blasfamie) law. Raising questions on India’s secularism and action of secular parties.

Janet Levy further wrote that for the first time in 2013 some fundamentalist Maulanas of Bengal started demanding a separate ‘Mughalistan’. In the same year riots in Bengal, houses and shops of hundreds of Hindus were looted and many temples were also destroyed by rioters under the safe shelter of government and police.

After the Bidhansava Election 2021 the Hindus of West Bengal facing the same or even worse situation.

Are Hindus boycotted?

Victorious party supremo of West Bengal was afraid that if the Muslims were stopped they would get angry and would not vote and after getting freshly elected her government falls into that vicious circle again.

It is evident from the aftermath of the election result in West Bengal that not only riots but to drive away Hindus, in districts where there are more Muslims, boycotting Hindu businessman. In the Muslim majority districts of Malda, Murshidabad, and North Dinajpur, Muslims do not even buy goods from Hindu shops. This is the reason why a large number of Hindus have started migrating from West Bengal like Kashmiri Pandits, here Hindus leaving their homes and businesses and moving to other places. These are the districts where Hindus have become a minority.

Invoking such incidents Janet, stated that the demand for partition of Bengal from India will soon begin from the land of West Bengal. No demographic theorist interpreted the present demographic situation of West Bengal sabotaging Malthusian theory.

In accord with Janet’s analysis, a few recent sources also indicated the number of the Muslim population, in reality, is much higher than the number on record given to the hiding of numbers of children by Muslim parents when a survey takes place. Implementing CAA, NRC could have been way out for West Bengal to check the proper demographic status and to prevent further population explosion to sustain Bengali Hindus. Perceiving the appeasement politics of government for the last 10 years it’s seeming to be unlikely to get any sharp solution. 

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South Asia

Covid-19 has made Feminist Foreign Policy all the more Relevant to India

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Photo: Amit Ranjan/Unsplash

As the impact of the year long COVID19 pandemic continues to be felt across different parts of India—where patriarchy is entrenched in the social code and inequalities against women are being intuitively practised—the repercussions of the health crisis along with the ever deepening gender gaps are being disproportionately and severely borne by women. Yet, most of the discussions revolving around the pandemic have either been gender-blind or gender-neutral, often resulting in the systemic subjugation or marginalisation of women.

In light of these challenges, the thematic debate on gender equality can no longer continue just on papers, it in fact, needs to be converted into actions by the Indian government in order to deal with the short term consequences of the pandemic as well as to develop long-term sustainable peace. The adoption of a Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) framework is the best way to achieve this dual goal. A FFP could offer a concrete opportunity for India to build a more inclusive policy making set-up; breakaway from the predominant patriarchal notions; and, address pandemic relief strategies—from the viewpoint of women and other vulnerable or under-represented sections of society.

Gendered Impact of COVID19 in India

Within India’s socio-cultural and economic realms—that have historically been marred by inequalities and rigid stereotypes—the gendered effects of the COVID19 pandemic have been both, intersectional and complex.

To begin with, owing to the rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 patients, health-care workers in India, particularly the nurses of whom approximately 88.9 per cent are women remain much more vulnerable to contracting the deadly virus. The existing problem of shortage of basic equipment for these healthcare workers further aggravates these concerns.

Second, the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on an already shrinking Indian economy resulting in financial cut downs and rising unemployment. Women—either due to the deeply embedded patriarchal attitudes or due to the subconscious bias that arises out of such attitudes—have stood at the forefront of being temporarily or permanently laid-off from their jobs. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, with the commencement of the nationwide lockdown, the rate of unemployment reached 23.5 per cent in March to April 2020 with higher shares of unemployed women. The unemployment rate for women further reached 12.39 per cent as of February 2021.

Third, women in India are now being confronted with a shadow pandemic where forced proximity, isolation, increased substance abuse, lack of access to justice etc. during the on-going health crisis has resulted in an increasing threat of domestic or gender-based violence.  As per a set of data released by the National Commission of Women in April 2020, there was an almost 100 per cent increase in domestic violence during the lockdown.

Nonetheless, these are only some of the immediate effects of the pandemic on women in India. There are other sequential consequences that will emerge in time including, the problems of depletion in savings and assets, pandemic-related widowhood, etc., which would collaboratively make recovery extremely difficult for women.

Evidently, in India, the pandemic is exploiting pre-existing economic and social inequalities along with social norms that give men embedded advantages, and has been posing a real threat to closing gender gaps. In fact, according to the recent World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index, India has already slipped down 28 spots to rank 140th among 156 countries in comparison to its 112th position among 153 countries for the year 2019-2020.

But despite bearing a differential impact, women in India have not been included either directly or indirectly in the development of response strategies to deal with COVID19. As such, they remain absent from decision-making tables that involve the shaping of the future of our societies. However, research indicates that the inclusion of women along with other diverse voices makes for better options in policy making and in bringing about comprehensive outcomes that accommodate the needs and concerns of all groupings.

How can a FFP help?

These unfortunate states of affairs demand an adjustment in India’s thinking and strategy, bring about a paradigmatic shift in its traditional policymaking and allow for diverse representation to effectively deal with COVID19 pandemic. The present crisis is therefore, precisely the time to be talking about a FFP in India and for its representatives to make a stronger commitment to mainstream gender at the policy level.

By critically reflecting on the existing international power structures, a FFP framework focuses on protecting the needs of marginalised and female groups and places issues of human security and human rights at the heart of discussions. In doing so, it provides a fundamental shift from the conventional understanding of security to include other arena of foreign policy such as economics, finance, environment, health, trade etc.

With this new perception of health risks and crisis management as a security threat, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, India can potentially explore broadening the humanitarian trade options under its international arrangements to address shortages of medicine and lack of access to personal protective equipment for health workers within its territory— a vast majority of which continue to be women.

The adoption of a FFP could also pave the way for an increased regional cooperation, facilitate regional discussions on myriad issues and enable the development of targeted recovery program designed specifically for the empowerment of women. Such a program would account for the fact that the economic repercussions of crises disproportionately affect women and therefore, help India in securing assistance from its neighbour to address the gendered economic and social effects of the COVID19 pandemic.

Besides, FFP does not only mean considering power structures and managing relations at the global level alone but also evaluating outcomes within the country’s own domestic landscape. In this sense, a FFP could provide India with an important starting point for bringing about an internal shift by focusing more on gender issues, especially in terms of the strictly defined patriarchal gender roles and eliminate barriers that continue to restrict women’s participation in decision-making processes.

An emphasis on women’s participation in India’s leadership positions would in turn catalyse the application a gender lens to the process of domestic policymaking, thereby, achieving comprehensive outcomes that are inclusive of diverse perspectives. Such policies will promote women’s concerns as humanitarian issues, prioritize and safeguard the continuum of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and continue to facilitate the provision of information and education, thus making women better equipped to deal with the consequences of the pandemic.


Adding on to these factors, given that the FFP is an all-inclusive approach, its application could also potentially strengthen cooperation between the Indian government and civil society organisations or women’s network at home as well as abroad to manage the pandemic and its deleterious effect on people, especially women. At a time when the government resources are overwhelmed in their fight against the pandemic, greater involvement of civil society organisations can in fact, play a critical role in advocating social justice, women’s rights, social equity, and provide medical and food support, distribution of hygiene kits, spreading awareness about the virus, etc. These efforts could bring about a considerable improvement in women’s vulnerable position under the current Covid19 crisis in India.

Conclusion

As such, the FFP approach offers huge potential to address some the major institutional and organisational injustices against women in India, and the COVID19 pandemic represents a critical juncture in this regards. A FFP is important not only to ensure that the gendered imbalances inflicted by COVID19 do not become permanent but also for the long term economic and social development of the country, the strengthening of democratic institutions, and the advancement of national security as well as peace. But whether India will adopt or even consider moving towards a FFP in the near future remains to be seen.

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