The foundation for this new vision is a harmonious and inclusive society that embraces India’s unique plurality; incrementalism using existing tools, structures and processes may not suffice
December 31, 2022
The ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ in Kochi | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT
The year 2022 can perhaps be best summarised by a quote by Vladimir Lenin: ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.’
The year began with the ostensible vanquishing of the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the remarkable collective vaccination efforts of science, business and governments across the world. This significant accomplishment promised to restore normalcy in daily lives and rekindle the doused human spirit.
Alas, that was not meant to be. Just two months into the new year, the fallibility of the human mind reared its head in the form of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, throwing the world into disarray again. A global war, soon after a pandemic was both rare and unfathomable. Retaliatory economic sanctions and weaponisation of trade dependencies have triggered woes of inflation, recession and gas shortage in winter, making lives miserable for millions.
The era of innovative consumer technologies from America and Europe, mass produced in Taiwan, Korea and Japan, and consumed in China, Brazil and India, seems to be nearing its end. America is now championing trade restrictions against its enemies, promoting trading blocs among its allies and incentivising domestic production through large financial assistance. Trusted free trade among nations has turned into distrustful ‘foe trade’, leading to formation of ‘friend trade’ groups and the glorification of ‘economic nationalism’.
India’s explosive exports growth over the last four decades has helped create millions of jobs, bring in valuable foreign reserves, and spurred domestic production and consumption. India stands to gain from the established trade order and can ill afford to get squeezed in the emerging bipolar world of western and Russia-China trading blocs.
In the midst of such profound global changes comes the sudden, and incomprehensible military aggression by China against India. China’s advances into Indian territory are both undeniable and unacceptable. The timing and rationale of China’s military threat are intriguing and, purportedly, has a larger motive than just territorial interests across India’s borders. China has managed to engineer a realignment of the world order through strategic use of debt diplomacy, economic power and a ‘common enemy’ doctrine. The Chinese threat is neither just a border dispute with India nor an isolated bilateral conflict. It marks a fundamental reshaping of global forces.
China’s economic might as the factory of the world is what gives it the confidence and the power to indulge in such aggression. Knee-jerk reactions such as trade restrictions and economic sanctions against China by western powers are blunt measures that will backfire. The counter to a Sino-centric world order is an economically powerful India.
Factories employing millions of people producing billions of dollars of goods and services for the world in a thriving India is the strongest response to China. But social harmony is a necessary condition for India’s rise as an economic power. Factories cannot afford to differentiate amongst people of multiple identities working together, sowing distrust and hatred on the basis of workers’ religion, identity, caste or class. Ability is all that matters.
If we accept that India’s economic power holds the key to its internal security, then it follows that India’s social harmony is the foundation of its edifice. It is in this context that the ongoing Bharat Jodo Yatra led by Rahul Gandhi is significant. Sadly, India’s communal harmony is under threat, but of our own doing. There is a lurking danger of one stray communal incident erupting into large-scale violence and unrest. A communally divided India on tenterhooks is a gift to our enemies. Tormented sections of our society can be easy targets for a preying attacker. The yatra is a momentous effort to heal communal wounds and strengthen the nation’s social fabric to help surmount the geopolitical and economic challenges facing the nation and the world.
Cliched as it may sound, 2022 may go down in history as the year when the global equilibrium that lasted many decades and reaped tremendous benefits was disrupted. Seemingly rational pursuits of peace and prosperity are not the sole or even primary motivator for all nations and leaders. We must contest this ‘no more shared rational pursuits’ premise for the emerging new world order.
It is time to re-imagine India’s overall strategy and re-evaluate our normative policy framework in this backdrop of an irrational world. We need a holistic military, diplomatic, social and economic strategy and not be afraid to challenge conventional wisdom.
There is an imminent need to modernise and augment our defence capabilities with state-of-the-art weaponry and not be held hostage to antiquated military purchase norms and processes.
A belligerent and hostile China will reaffirm who India’s active friends are and who merely observes from the sidelines. The established foreign policy doctrine of non-alignment may now conflict with India’s growing need for trade and market access in the new economic world order, and may need to be re-envisioned. India needs a bolder geo-economic strategy to gain preferential access to unique technologies and capital from other nations in return for domestic market access.
India’s politics will need to craft a new social contract with citizens, as the traditional tools of welfare and governance turn creaky and the gap between the haves and have-nots widens further. India’s economic road map will have to factor in environmental concerns, move away from the monopolies model of private enterprise, carve a new inclusive, labour market focused economic development path of production, and not chase financialisation-driven GDP growth that has lost relevance for the common person.
India’s political governance model calls for greater decentralisation and federalism reforms to cater to widening divergence among States. Centralisation played a critical role in holding together and building the republic in the first half a century after Independence. The time has now come to let go and move away from a ‘one nation one policy’ mindset. Stronger institutions are a necessary condition for greater decentralisation. Reforming public institutions with more powers, autonomy, resources and accountability is essential.
In a nutshell, the nation needs a new vision in the new world. But the foundation for this new vision is a harmonious and inclusive society that embraces India’s unique plurality. Incrementalism using existing tools, structures and processes may not suffice. It requires the collective efforts of all leaders across the political spectrum to come together and craft a new vision, for which the onus rests with the Prime Minister. We sincerely hope for the sake of our beloved country and its beautiful people that a new awakening awaits.
Shashi Tharoor is a Congress Member of Parliament and former United Nations Under Secretary General. Praveen Chakravarty is a senior office bearer of the Congress party and a political economist