Annus horribilis

KANTI BAJPAI

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THE year 2020 is one that India would rather forget. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. And the prime minister and his team failed at almost everything – dealing with the corona-virus pandemic, managing the economy, and protecting national security. The truth is becoming increasingly clear: Narendra Modi is a superb communicator and electoral campaigner, but he is a very average policy maker. This is partly because of his governance style, but it is also because he has one of the weakest cabinets in post- independence India. In the end, the two problems are inter-related: because his governance style is so centralized, there is no room for anyone else to show initiative or leadership. The prime minister remains popular despite the shambolic state of the country; but that just shows how much India has lost its way. The worse things get the more the populace turns to Modi, primarily because there is no one else: he is both sinner and saviour.

The prime minister had already begun to dismantle the economy in his first term. Sadly, after re-election he made the mistake of thinking that he was free to remake politics, society, and culture and that the economy, foreign policy, and national security would take care of themselves. Not so. His decision to revoke Article 370 and abolish the special provisions in the Constitution for Jammu and Kashmir had consequences he did not foresee: the Chinese took umbrage, fearing that Indian policy threatened Tibet and the area near the Karakoram Pass, and they decided to take action. The result was the worst foreign policy and national security crisis with China since 1967 if not 1962, a crisis that is far from over.

Modi could not have known that a pandemic was to hit the world just months after his ill-judged constitutional decision. The economy was still dealing with the consequences of demonetisation, a badly thoughtout GST, a wobbling banking and financial sector, a stagnant construction industry, and growing global protectionism when the coronavirus pandemic broke out in January 2020. At first, the government seemed to think that closing the airports to returning Indians in China and the Gulf would be enough to protect the general population. That proved completely wrong. The numbers soon surged, and on March 24, the prime minister ordered a comprehensive national lockdown for three weeks.

 

The lockdown was extended in varying degrees until the end of June. Millions of migrant workers in diffe-rent parts of India were first stranded, and then left mostly to fend for themselves as they made their way home, often hundreds of miles away. The central government was practically nowhere to be seen in the terrible drama that unfolded, with millions trekking home in the burning heat of the Indian summer. The country had not seen a movement of people on this scale since Partition.

In the health sector, as the numbers surged it became apparent that medical and other hospital staff did not have enough protective gear, there were shortages of oxygen and various respiratory aids, and despite the lead time the outbreak in Wuhan had provided, there were not enough Covid-19 testing kits and masks. This mismanagement has led to a situation where, by July 2020, India had the highest death rate amongst South Asian countries: at 2.95% it was ahead of everyone else in the region. In India’s two big neighbours, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the rates were 1.26 and 2.05%, respectively.

The lockdown proved to be a mixed blessing if not a catastrophe. It seemed temporarily to halt the spread. However, given the extent of the lockdown, it could not be economically sustained. A total clamp on physical movement for the vast majority of Indians (except homeward-bound migrants) meant that the economy went into a tailspin. From stuttering growth before the pandemic, growth went into reverse gear. The World Bank’s most recent analysis projects India’s GDP for 2020 to decrease by nearly 10%. It is projected to rebound to the tune of 8% growth in 2021, but that will not get it back to where it was in 2019.

Except for the Maldives, India did worse than any other South Asian country in terms of GDP growth. Bangladesh and Bhutan managed to register growth rates of 2 and 1.5%, respectively. Pakistan contracted by 1.5%, warn-torn Afghanistan by 5.5%, and Sri Lanka by 6.7%, but Indian growth declined by a whopping 9.6%. So much for the vaunted competence of the Modi government.

 

More embarrassing news for the government was to follow. In October, the World Bank noted that for the first time ever, Bangladesh’s per capita income would surpass India’s – not shocking to anyone following Bangladesh’s progress over the past two decades, but the announcement seemed to take the Indian government aback. When the story broke, Delhi managed rather lamely to say that India’s total GDP was many times larger than Bang-ladesh’s. Given that India’s population is eight times Bangladesh’s, it follows that its GDP must be much larger than that of our eastern neighbour!

With the pandemic surging and the economy stuttering, Indians woke to the prospect of war with China in early May. Evidently, Chinese incursions had begun in mid-April or so, but the Indian government failed to apprise the public of developments in Ladakh. Initially, too, Delhi seemed not to comprehend that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was present in stre-ngth and determined to stay put. The assumption, until the bloody encoun- ter on June 15 in Galwan, was that the confrontation would be defused, as in Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014, Burtse in 2015 (a confrontation that the government and media seem to have conveniently forgotten), and Doklam in 2017.

 

The prime minister’s triumphalist story about his informal summits with President Xi Jinping in Wuhan in May 2018 and Mamallapuram in October 2019 had suggested that all was well with China. Evidently not. It remains unclear why China intruded so decisively in the summer of 2020, but surely Article 370 and Indian road-building up to Daulat Beg Oldie had some-thing to do with it. We may well defend both decisions, particularly the road-building. The question is: why did Delhi fail to track Chinese unhappiness in 2019 and early 2020 and take appropriate preventive measures at the border to stop the incursions?

Since Galwan, India’s China policy has been marked by gaffes and howlers. Days before the Galwan melee, the Indian military was assuring the nation that disengagement was proceeding nicely. In which case, we need to know what really happened at Galwan: did the Chinese violate a disengagement agreement, or did Indian assessment of the situation go wrong? Then, after Galwan, at an all-party meeting, the prime minister declared that there had never been a Chinese intrusion – even though his defence ministry and external affairs ministry were saying the opposite and have continued to say the opposite in the months thereafter. The government’s clarification of Modi’s remarks were confusing and clumsy – and despite Delhi’s clarifications, the Chinese media gleefully latched on to his ini- tial statement about Chinese non- intrusion.

As the crisis continued to brew, there was more comedy. In an attempt to reassure the Indian public and deter our adversaries, the Indian military insisted it could fight a two-front, even a two-and-a-half-front war. Expert estimates are that India has enough supplies to fight an intense war with Pakistan for only ten days. In the case of China, the Indian Army has calculated that a war would last a month (though it is worth remembering that in 1962 there were only 11 days of actual combat). How India can fight a two-front war, plus terrorism in Kashmir (the half-war), given its current military spares-and-logistics capability, is beyond imagination. The Indian military does not seem to understand that overblown statements such as these only undermine the credibi- lity of India’s defence. They do not enhance it.

 

As if the problem with China was not bad enough, just days after Delhi went public with the Chinese intrusion, Nepal protested over Indian maps showing parts of western Nepal in the Lipulekh area as belonging to India. This was in reaction to new Indian maps issued in November 2019 after the Article 370 reorganization of Kashmir. Kathmandu was also provoked by Indian road-building in the contested area. The Indian Army Chief, Mukund Naravane, who is as prone as pre-decessors V.K. Singh and Bipin Rawat to make needlessly provocative statements, suggested that Nepal’s protests over the border were at the behest of China. Whether that is true or not, his statement only poured oil on the fire.

Relations with Nepal, during Modi’s period, have gone through ups and downs. The prime minister began well on his first visit there, but relations spiralled downwards soon afterwards – partly over Delhi’s inept handling of Nepal’s new constitution and its treatment of ethnic Indians, and partly as a result of growing Chinese influence that Delhi has been unable to counter. The Indian maps, Naravane’s statement, and Nepal’s internal politics – and yes, Chinese diplomacy – combined to bring relations to a low. It took several months of soothing diplomacy and a Naravane visit to Nepal in November to restore some warmth to the relationship.

 

Relations with Bangladesh too have run into trouble thanks to the Modi-Shah decision to push ahead on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019. Here again, their preoccupation with restructuring Indian cultural, social, and political life and neglect- ing the economy, foreign policy, and national security proved ill-considered. CAA was regarded by many in the Muslim community and by other Indians as anti-minority, particularly anti-Muslim. Predictably, since it pertained above all to the status of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Dhaka was resentful of the CAA. Public protests broke out over a possible visit by Modi to attend the celebrations of the Sheikh Mujibur centennial. Bangladesh eventually cancelled the cele-brations citing the Covid-19 crisis, but in reality, in deference to public anger over CAA. Once again, as with Nepal, a steady relationship teered on the edge.

Despite the so-called ‘India First’ policy of Sri Lanka since the Rajapaksha brothers returned to power, Delhi remains worried over Colombo’s relations with China and its handling of the minority Tamil community. In September 2020, Modi met prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksha at a virtual summit with the hope of bringing Colombo round. Sri Lanka nevertheless did not change its stand on implementation of the 13-A amendment to the constitution which pro-vides for a devolution of power to the provincial councils. Nor did it change course on the suspension of the East Container Terminal (ECT) project which India and Japan are supposed to develop. While China may have played a role in instigating the protests against the ECT, suspension of the project dramatizes India’s difficulties in Sri Lanka.

In the end, at the summit, the two sides were unable to come to a consensus on the constitutional amendment and the ECT project. Meanshile, India continues to throw money at its Sri Lanka problem: it agreed to a $400 million currency swap to ease Sri Lanka’s indebtedness to India. Colombo is asking for an additional $1 billion. This is tail-twisting, with no end in sight.

 

Pakistan remains the Modi government’s ‘no go zone’. Nothing positive is happening with Islamabad. Since Pulwama, and the surgical strike that no one now wants to talk about (largely one suspects because it achieved so little), Delhi has pulled down the dip-lomatic shutters. On its side, ever since the repeal of Article 370, Islamabad has shown no great interest in talks either. Both sides have accused the other of spying and interference in internal politics. In addition, Delhi remains worried about the Afghan peace talks, a possible pullout of US troops and advisers from the country, and the implications of a US withdrawal for Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. The one positive initiative with Pakistan that the Modi government proceeded with, the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor for Sikh pilgrims, was apparently stopped because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In reality, Delhi fears that the corridor may allow Islamabad to stoke Sikh separatism.

Is India’s refusal to talk to Pakistan sustainable? And if sustainable, is it desirable? The Modi government has oscillated between diplomatic engagement prior to 2016 and disengagement since the Uri terror attack in that year. Neither policy has had much success. Bereft of ideas, India has simply closed off all serious diplomatic talks. Perhaps its only real effort has been to get Washington to occasionally badmouth Pakistan – which, given Beijing’s steadfast support of Islamabad, achieves little.

 

It is only with the Maldives that the Modi government recovered ground after losing considerable influence under the previous Maldivian government. In October, India announced a $400 million line of credit for the Greater Male Connectivity Project. This was in addition to the $100 million of Indian money already pledged to the project. Before that, India had offered a line of credit worth $800 million – one of the largest Delhi has ever given another country. Delhi has also provided $400 million in a currency swap arrangement and up to $1.4 billion in budgetary support. In September 2020, India backed the recently signed US-Maldives defence agreement. The agreement will deepen cooperation between the US and Maldives’ navies and provides for regular defence and security talks between Washington and Male. All this has stemmed Chinese influence and for now seems to have brought Male closer to Delhi.

The other positive development in foreign policy is relations with the US. Having said that relations are positive, it is difficult to know how Delhi could spoil things with Washington given the strategic convergence on China. Still, to give credit where it is due, since the Ladakh crisis the Modi government has tried to get closer to the US as a way of showing the Chinese that it has a powerful friend. It has been more upbeat about India’s membership in the Indo-Pacific and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) which includes Australia, Japan, and the US. At the bilateral level, in late October, as the Ladakh crisis continued to fester, Delhi finally signed BECA, the fourth foundational military agreement with the US. BECA or the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, along with the other three agreements (GSOMIA, LEMOA, and COMCASA), provide for better intelligence sharing, logistics cooperation, and interoperability of forces which in turn facilitate high-technology US arms sales to India.

India and the US do not see eye to eye on everything, as has been evident throughout the Trump presidency. They have disagreed on visas for Indian professionals, trade protectionism, relations with Iran and Russia, the peace process in Afghanistan, and even aspects of US relations with Pakistan. Another unspoken grievance on the Indian side is that the US has never quite supported Indian border claims in the western sector in Ladakh/Aksai Chin even though it has backed Delhi on the eastern sector and Arunachal Pradesh.

 

Overall, though, the common threat of China has shored up the relationship. The Modi team has kept the momentum of the Manmohan Singh years going. If there have been missteps, they have been in Modi’s Houston speech (where he seemed to back Trump and the Republican Party over the Democratic Party) and his over-enthusiasm for the visiting president in Ahmedabad. This probably will not affect relations with Joe Biden and the Democrats, but it is clear that the new US administration will have difficulties with India’s human rights record, authoritarian governance, trade protectionism, and relations with Russia. If Biden proves to be softer on China, that too will be a problem for India. All in all, the US relationship is a bright spot, but with Biden at the helm there will be shadows here and there.

 

In conclusion, it has been a fairly disastrous year for India and for Modi. The prime minister continues to be popular and to win elections – largely because there is no credible alternative. But he repeatedly fails on governance. His Gujarat model simply does not work nationally (it is not clear that he was all that successful in Gujarat either). A model of governance that depends on a tame cabinet, a group of technocratic senior civil servants, a quiescent party, and a slaving media that has been brought to heel is not up to the challenge of a vast and complex India. In economic policy, public health, and foreign policy in 2020, Modi’s approach to governance and his policy responses were near-calamitous for the country even if the prime minister remained popular.

Unfortunately, Modi has shown that he will not change course. He persists with a governance style and structure that he thinks delivers and that suits his persona. Eventually, India will pay the price for over-centralization in terms of the continuing erosion of institutions and norms. By then, unfortunately, the challenges will be even more daunting than they are now. Imagine a country of 1.5 or 1.6 billion at mid-century, in the midst of climate change, water shortages, and social disruption, a country still amongst the poorest in the world and riven by inequalities, with an overbearing leadership that trusts no one except itself. Three decades from now we may look back at 2020 as the har- binger of how badly it can all turn out when you have a governance model that is not fit for purpose.

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