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Imagining India in the Post-COVID World: An Analysis of Possible Pathways

by Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag Ayush Mazumdar - 25 August, 2020, 12:00 383 Views 0 Comment

International Politics, like all politics, is a struggle for Power’, a very insightful observation by the most celebrated authority in International Relations theory Hans J Morgenthau. In fact, our academic socialisation in the discipline starts with the concept of ‘Power’, the chief instrument employed by nations to fulfil their national interest. So, Power can be the ‘means to an end’. In defining a nation-state, an indispensable component is the nature and strength of power it possesses. In this brief writing, our purpose is to revisit various characterization of power that denotes giant India is and how should it consolidate her power as pre-requisite of her continuous thriving amidst all odds that might constrain or inhibit her power as the current context of the covid-19 pandemic warrants no ego but tenacity and little wit to guide action with restriction and vision. It does neither mean conservatism nor heroic over-activism. Rather, we need far sight to build organizational strength and institutional infrastructure as a backup force to create resilience against the abrupt devastation causing havoc for our society and security.

So, if we turn to our country at its 73rd birth anniversary what appears most appalling amidst rampant crises is the trigger of the pandemic causing a torrent of catastrophes to put things upside-down. So, we talk about crises first because already the horrible experience of Covid-19 has exposed how we stood ill-prepared to stand up to the rapid spread of the contagion. It is perhaps a very amazing contradiction to juxtapose humming economic growth around 6-7 percent per annum a few years ago side by side our abysmal state of the public health system. While the panacea of much of such challenges lay in how we frankly approach and contemplate to manage the plethora of initiatives for reform, we have to acknowledge that today India represents and enjoys a power status in the international system that has been expressed by a number of terminological nomenclatures like ‘rising power’ or ‘emerging power’, or often ‘responsible power’, sometimes ‘regional power’, or projected to be a ‘major power’. Of course, there are certain factors underpinning these flamboyant images like India’s bubbling economy, her legitimacy born of worldwide acceptance by the international community (recently India entered the UNSC as a non-permanent member by winning 184 votes out of 192 valid votes cast), vibrant democracy, military capability including her ambitious space programme showcased by successful ASAT test and its projection of cultural treasure—Brand India and more recently Yoga.

Another major reason for the various ‘typologies of power’ that we invoke to refer is to signify India’s great power aspirations. These stand for her increasing capacity as already demonstrated equally in important sectors like higher education in technology, management and medical sciences. India’s global economic aspirations have been projected through the increasing presence of the Indian Industries and human capital in the field of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) ability. Already our New Education Policy 2020 is a bold move towards change which tries to plug that have emerged between skills taught and the skills that have emerged within few decades in the field of technology and advanced skills ranging from Artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), 5G (5th Generation) internet connectivity. Hence, the New Education Policy 2020 tries to bridge the gap between the advanced and out-dated mode of education(Chopra, 2020). The main objective of the education policy is to boost a multi-disciplinary way of education and enable students to think rather than follow the tradition of rote learning and memorization. Change is and should be the law, not to be understood mechanically as of nature of which we are an integral part, but change is inescapable social dynamism that keeps us moving forward in tune with constant metamorphosis. So, from that point, we expect new horizons to be opened and new heights to be scaled. It is very crucial that we always try to leverage to achieve a transition to a higher stage because our state capacity needs a powerful fillip to elevate ourselves from the middle power rank to ‘rising power status’. The epithet was first used in March 2005 by Condoleezza Rice, the then US Secretary of State. She observed that “India is emerging not just as a regional power but as a global power.” In mid-2006, while urging the US Congress on a deal with India, she remarked that “as a rising global power, India can be a pillar of stability in a rapidly changing Asia and a strategic partner for the United States”. Very recently in the backdrop of Sino-Indian border standoff at Galwan valley in eastern Ladakh, this was echoed in US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent announcement that “New Delhi is an important partner and a key pillar of Trump’s foreign policy”. Apparently no problem with it except the point that we cannot buy security by mortgaging our strategic autonomy. As also the issue of sovereignty cannot be compromised in this globalised world where the MNCs through their economic manipulative powers are already eroding the autonomy of the state in certain minimal spheres.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and current External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar have both on various occasions further given vent to India’s aspiration to be a ‘Leading Power’ and not just a power in South Asia to reckon with. However, the transition from regional to leading power are not compartmentalized constructions having different bases but rather, the initial aspiration of a leading power is to transform itself into a regional power first. If this does not materialize, then leading power status has a hollow significance. Taking inspiration from the words of Condoleezza Rice that the states need to rise continuously in order to do the task of power filling the Indian state needs to build a strong regional power base. Ashley Tellis says that a ‘leading power’ essentially influences issues but cannot determine outcomes especially against the inclination of great powers. Thus, “a leading power is a system shaper, unlike great powers which are system makers”. Many foreign policy experts, however, argue that India is yet to elevate herself to the position of a leading power. In order to achieve the mighty status, one needs robust capability and it cannot be made overnight with rhetoric. We need plans and systematic implementation of the same and a robust overarching consistent foreign policy doctrine, not just band-aid foreign policy doctrine from time to time to address certain imminent issues rising globally or regionally, but rather an ideologically acceptable doctrine that surpasses regime instability. Hence, there needs to be an Indian foreign policy doctrine structured on the historical foundations of this nation. Consistency is key to effective policy building. But even there is a problem as mentioned by Kelkar and Shah that “When state capacity is high, a government can embark on more complex plans. When state capacity is low, the only things that will work correctly are simple plans” (Kelkar and Shah  2019). So, it implies that we need plans for optimum growth but simultaneously we need to act what we can do correctly or accomplish successfully without jumping on the bandwagon of complex, expansive and inflated policy network especially in a worldwide scenario of the depressed condition in the aftermath of the pandemic. Taking a clue from it, we can say that of course, predatory Chinese motive has augmented our resolve to counter China’s revisionist posture, but that does not mean we have to enter shadow-boxing to contain Chinese influence worldwide for that will create a far more deleterious ditch of permanent friction with China being the next-door neighbour. Since the theories of International relations are theories, after all, it is imperative that we should apply that malleability of the theories into an action-oriented doctrine having a mix of all the relevant theoretical ideologies. The core consisting of foundational values that cannot be suspended ranging from sovereignty to autonomy defined by national interest and the outlying portion consisting of tools and ideology to achieve those core foundational values. The tools must change with time.  

India has also been identified as an emerging power. It will be clear from the views of Indian scholars like Rajesh Rajagopalan, Varun Sahni and others who have described “great powers as ones which have system shaping capabilities as well as intentions”. The middle powers, according to them, are those “countries that lack such mammoth capabilities but whose resources, size, location, and role predominantly ensure that they are always considered by the great powers as important”. Rajagopalan and Sahni subscribe to the view that “India has shifted from being a middle power or intermediate state to an emerging power that is defined as nations that are growing and have the willingness and capacity to reach the great power position”. Some argue that as a norm-setter India’s role is extremely valuable in the international system. Some others observe that by combining its state identity of strategic autonomy (i.e. keeping the option open without being blindly swayed by any great powers), civilizational distinction ( various cultures and religious movements combining to create an eclectic thread of heritage), post-independence decision in favour of secular democracy despite profound trauma of the Partition, and its enlightened and supportive international role in the United Nations, upholding the value of multilateralism, consistent pursuit of pro-globalization reforms in the economic sector for encouraging competition, inviting foreign investors etc. while maintaining a minimum safety net for the sick, for the Scheduled castes and tribes, India is carving her own niche, hence to be understood as a purposive and wise actor poised to take its place in the rank of the world’s major powers.

At the backdrop of China’s rise and its recent geopolitical assertion, India’s emergence in pursuit of great-power status has confronted tough challenge. Albeit India has utilized her benign diplomatic performance as a major tool to augment her consistent rise. India has also actively engaged in its neighbourhood, albeit with a questionable degree of success and also Look East Policy since 1991 to reach out to South-East Asian countries to build close cooperative trade and security-oriented relations by using her naval power and by infrastructure projects like Asian Highways to boost connectivity with local powers in the neighbourhood region.

Now let us have a different opinion. Bharat Karnad in his work ‘Why India is Not a Great Power? (Yet?) explored the pre-requisites for great power stature. Some of these include a driving vision, a sense of national destiny, clearly defined national interests, the willingness of the country to employ coercion and force as the means to achieve its interests etc(Karnad, 2015). Taking note of the several achievements that India boasts of, he opines that all of these do not translate into major power status.

While these are the debates on India’s rising power status among the scholars it would be interesting to explore further some other relevant points:

Indian Economy: After independence, India adopted Nehruvian consensus which not only synthesised to put forth a new democratic constitution but also put forth new policies. It was the model of state-led development or vigorous state planning under Nehru and Mahalanobis which got fruition in the form of Five-Year Plans (FYPs) from 1951 onwards till 2017. Though, the orientation, objectives and contents changed drastically the structure was kept intact till 2017 (Twelfth Five-Year plan). From the late 1960s to the mid-1980s was a period of veritable battle with complicated adjustments on the part of the Indian state. But due to restrictions, the protectionist orientation of the economy prevailed. Then started the transition to free the economy. The introduction of neo-liberal reforms of 1991 which was basically a policy of integrating the Indian economy closely with the framework of LPG (i.e. Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization) could be reckoned as a turning point. Of course, it was not easy to introduce reforms smoothly because of several factors like the first Gulf war of 1991, unstable coalition governments etc. Still, India’s bold initiative to go for reforms stage by stage helps to improve her image. Today India is projecting to reach $ 5 Trillion economy. Drawing upon a tabular presentation of international power standing from 2030 to 2050professor Aneek Chatterjee in one of his recent takes has projected India as one of the major powers. To quote professor Chatterjee, India will enjoy the status of a ‘Major Power’ from 2030 to 2050 on the basis of its growing economic strength and a strong military. India is projected to develop technologically with equivalent development in its social institutions and infrastructure. So we may take such tentative calculation into account when we want to underline the fact that India’s take-off from hitherto state of ‘a shackled giant’ has heralded a new era with a brand new scorecard to smarten economy, correcting trade imbalances, side by side with rapid democratisation, decentralisation to encourage the empowerment of excluded groups like women, Dalits etc.

At present India’s standing in the neighbourhood owes much to her willing response to development partnerships in the neighbourhood which are basically demand-driven partnerships, based on requests by recipient states like Bhutan, Bangladesh etc. The main function of this framework is to build ties of economic partnership based on addressing common development challenges and under contingencies by HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief missions). It may pertinently be noted here that the current Covid-19 situation once again proved beyond doubt how India came forward to shoulder a moral responsibility to respond to such medical emergencies and hence getting appreciated by the United Nations for its supply of hydroxychloroquine to 55 coronavirus-hit countries as grants including Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh Nepal, the Maldives, Mauritius, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Zambia, Dominican Republic, Madagascar, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Congo, Egypt, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Ecuador, Jamaica, Syria, Ukraine, Chad, Zimbabwe, France, Jordan, Kenya, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Oman and Peru, as revealed, it was a stupendous task of charity and discharging of global responsibility in difficult times(PTI, 2020). This indeed speaks volumes in terms of New Delhi’s realization and refashioning of her role in catering to the demand of human security and global pandemic.

India’s Main Dilemma:

As a large power surrounded by smaller ones, India has long faced the traditional dilemma of losing influence, worsening threats, and widening fault lines provoking third-country involvement. India’s controversial efforts to coerce the Nepali government in the past or paddling influence in elections in Bangladesh are some of the excesses of her over-activism. We expect India to do the course-correction in the post-Covid age. In addition, she should also be guided by long-term as opposed to episodic measures like lockdown or temporary relief packages so that India’s medical diplomacy could bring about a new compassionate outlook at variance with hawkish dimension following India’s retaliatory posture exhibited by her Balakot air strike in 2019.

India knows it well that the South Asian region remains characterised by low state capacity. But there is lesser understanding that it might become a trap to create overzealous enthusiasm often to strike at own heels. “When there is low state capacity, there is a bigger chance of state power being used in the wrong ways. Therefore, it is wise to use coercion mildly”. In such circumstances, we have to be cautious and engagements with neighbours are a must even if porous and unclear borders yield fewer chances of consensus. According to one estimate India shares boundary with Pakistan (3323 km), China (3488 km), Nepal (1751 km), Bhutan (699 km), Myanmar (1643 km), and Bangladesh (4096.7 km). Due to two factors, these border regions are always tensed. One is the refusal to accept the border set by the British before leaving India in 1947 and secondly, the vast spread of the borderline is another challenge to monitor the stretch effectively. Thus, India’s strategic environment is most powerfully shaped by South Asia, Southeast Asia, and West Asia. But these 3 regions present radically different challenges with regard to geopolitics and great power competition in near-abroad theatre of South East Asia. So, our efforts all along this vast expanse of territory may require to be propped up by “a precautionary line of defense” in the post-Covid-19 era which can address the latent risk as confirmed by the recent Chinese military intrusion. But it does not mean piling up myriad initiatives right now, rather economic reversal and financial meltdown that might linger in the period immediately in the aftermath of the pandemic calls for “return to the basics” to avoid frittering of our energy. Remember our role may produce greater pleasure and impact if we can solve smaller regional problems satisfactorily rather than discerning to find the source of greater recognition and more prestige by running after more and more, greater issues.

Key reforms in various fields is the need of the moment ranging from economic, education, public health, defence, legal, logistical and infrastructural. The strengthened position of the domestic conditions would result in a confident power projection ability. It is imperative for the policymakers to realise that the success or transition of India to a great power lies entirely on the materialistic and ideological flourishing of the core domain which is the nation-state territorial domestic dimension. The diaspora can play an important role but it is always in the secondary aspect as the primary domain is the country itself. The growth and accompanied development of the citizens would always be the primary stage of power projection. India cannot strive to be a great power with such inhibition pulls because that would push us back to the decades of Nehruvian Socialism. Therefore, the Indian foreign policy should be based on the domestic policy and a continuation of it which can be tracked through the 3C Principle of Cooperation-Courage-Concentration. The constitution of India provides the domain of interplay between the 3C Principle which needs to be applied thoroughly. Cooperation through secularism and affirmative action, courage through military and space endeavours and concentration through policy concentration and penetration.

Finally, we can say that “our tryst with destiny” symbolized a new era. The post-COVID era would similarly be a new journey with far tougher challenges. But there are many reasons for optimism. Already we are crafting our strategies with a new lexicon of multilateralism to build winning alliances and by pushing through reforms even under hard times to send a message across the board that Prime Minister’s vision of Atmanirbhar India has not retreated from the path of globalization. So, if we can project our brand the breakthrough is possible.

Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag
Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag
Author is Professor of Political Science at Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, W.B & Coordinator of the Atish Dipankar Srij'nan Centre for South Asian Studies, S-K-B University, W.B, India.
Ayush Mazumdar
Ayush Mazumdar
Author is Scholar at the Centre of South Asia Studies, Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, Purulia, West Bengal, India.

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