Success Occurs When Opportunity Meets Preparation.- Zig Ziglar
India has traditionally punched far below its weight. We are a large country with the second-highest population and the seventh-largest landmass. Every sixth human being on the globe is an Indian. That should suffice for India to have a significant say in global affairs. Yet, we find our influence being eroded on the global scene and, in recent times, steadily waning.
The world values and respects power. Weak nations have no place in the geopolitical scheme of things. Despite some recent setbacks, the US dominates, if not monopolises, global affairs and institutions. Not only is it the strongest economically, but its soft power is also respected worldwide. China has grown economically and in terms of its technological capability over the past three decades. People notice when it says something, even if they disagree with it.
Today, India has neither the economic strength nor the soft power to be a significant player in global space. That was understandable until the early-1990s since India was a protected economy that did not encourage interaction with the outside world. The highly successful reforms in the 1990s kindled hopes of a confident India engaging on equal terms with the global powers.
Unfortunately, it is now a well-established fact that India is an inward-looking nation with little inclination to open itself up. We undertake reforms only out of compulsion and not any conviction, preferring to meet our needs internally within the country, even terming such an approach patriotic. Our outlook is inward.
Many policies and attitudes of the 1950s and 1960s continue, although the form and nomenclature may be different. What was earlier termed import-substitution is now a more catchy ‘atmanirbharta’. As Arvind Subramanian and Josh Felman rightly remarked, 'aspiring outward, turning inward'.
Let us look at the issue from the right perspective. India today has two significant advantages. The fight for supremacy between the Western world and China will be a long drawn-out affair. India has an integral role to play in this struggle, given our physical proximity to China, with a long border and a history of confrontation. That and the size of the country ensures we cannot be ignored, even if it be a forced, unwanted engagement.
But, we are messing up and messing up big time. Zig Zaglar stressed on preparation to convert an opportunity to succeed. By doing precisely the opposite, we are converting our opportunity to disaster.
In the recent past, India’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate has halved to 4% from 8.3%. The savings rate is significantly down, private investment does not appear to be forthcoming, and exports have been stagnant for almost a year decade. These figures are pre-pandemic, after which the economic conditions have deteriorated even more. The Indian story may well and truly be over.
The economic decline is, of course, quite damaging in nature and India has lost the attraction of a fast-growing economy. We could have easily weathered the decline and held out hopes for a better future. What has led to the country losing esteem in global affairs is a consistent fall in our standards of liberal democracy.
Establishing a liberal democracy is not easy. The government as well as the people of the country, must have a strong conviction and should be prepared to nurture it over long periods. The temptation to take shortcuts and an easy way out must be resisted. The most critical aspect is healthy criticism and dissent that must not only be tolerated and accepted but encouraged.
We have, in the recent past, considerably sullied our image in this respect. We have shown an inability to accept any view that could be remotely construed as different. And, we have gone after such views with a heavy hand.
Let us look at some of the examples of the recent past. Since the days of TN Seshan as the chief election commissioner, elections in India have been mainly free and fair, a tremendous achievement in a country beset with poor law and order. That seems to be changing. Slowly but surely, the election commission is getting increasingly compromised. The fairness of the election process can no longer be taken for granted. The same sense of compromise characterises many other institutions of national importance. Without strong, independent institutions, liberal democracy becomes unsustainable.
Two years back, the Howdy Modi event held in Texas, US was a crass demonstration of hero-worshipping. It was also the first-ever instance of an Indian prime minister taking sides in a forthcoming US election. The Indian external affairs minister absented himself at the last minute from a meeting with US senators who were members of the foreign relations committee.
The sole reason was the presence of Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a known critic of the Indian government. Instead of using the meeting as an appropriate platform to put across India’s point of view, the minister’s absence seemed churlish. Being publicly rude to senators who may be critical of India’s human rights record is immature and does not endear us to the new administration in power now.
The reaction of the Indian government to criticism by Greta Thunberg, and the consequent arrest of Disha Ravi and other activists in what became famous as the toolkit episode, was so over the top that even hardcore admirers of the government were unable to fathom what was happening. Indeed, we have a very sensitive skin.
Instead of talking to people with different views, taking everyone’s opinion into account, which is a fundamental aspect of democracy, the government has revealed a tendency to go after dissent, real or imagined, with all its might. Those who express a different view have had to face the might of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the enforcement directorate (ED), the income-tax (I-T) department and various other government authorities. Nothing can be more effective in insidiously destroying the very foundations of democracy in a country.
Epitomising the streak towards authoritarianism, far-reaching legislations are passed without reasonable discussion in the Parliament and outside. Legislative changes in Jammu & Kashmir were rushed through almost stealthily, with hardly any time given to the Parliament. It is instructive that, despite such a significant change, normal life eludes the state, with severe restrictions in force more than two years later.
Agricultural laws were similarly passed without extensive discussions and the country faced the consequences, with a farmers’ agitation forcing the government to climb down. Now the decision to abrogate the laws has similarly been a closely guarded secret, sprung on the nation with surprise and, subsequently, rubber-stamped by the cabinet and passed in the Lok Sabha in a record 12 minutes. The ruling political party has used its majority to browbeat everyone, including its own members of Parliament, without realising its deleterious impact on the country’s image. Never, ever has the Parliament been treated with such contempt.
India remains the only large country which is not a part of any significant trade pact. With the dilution of the World Trade Organisation (WTO, most countries are engaged in building smaller trade groups. India of course shies away; being a member involves give and take and presupposes the ability to compete with other countries on equal terms. Since 2014, India has not signed a single trade pact with any country.
Withdrawal from Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a shining example of the pusillanimity with which we approach free trade, relying instead on high import duties and unilateral regulatory action (protectionism!) on our part. The insular nature of the Indian society keeps asserting itself time and again and India continues to shy away from playing by global rules.
One of the core tenets of a liberal regime is the rule of law, that law must be applied equally and in the same manner for every citizen. In this respect, India’s record has never inspired confidence; but we were improving and getting there, even if ever so slowly. The last few years have witnessed a reversal, with the common man increasingly facing discrimination while seeking justice.
Some of the laws passed during the past few years have not only been irrational but discriminatory in nature. The Citizen Amendment Act was the most insidious manifestation of such an attitude, going against the spirit of the constitution by discriminating between Indians on the basis of their religion. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called it “fundamentally discriminatory.”
Finally, the politics of polarisation and promotion of a Hindutva inspired agenda, culminating now in the hate conclave at Haridwar, do nothing to strengthen India’s claims of being a modern liberal society.
India is slowly but surely becoming a violent nation. Nothing is more harmful to democracy than the use of violence to pursue one’s goals. Public lynching for various offences, real or perceived, has become a common feature. Violence now seems to permeate our social fabric like a leech, with consequences that can only be lethal.
Indian voters may dismiss such indiscretions as inconsequential; but the world at large and the Western democracies, in particular, do not feel comfortable.
They have taken notice, and they do not like what they see. Has anyone observed that the recent visit of Narendra Modi to the US, his seventh as prime minister of India, was one of the least consequential of any Indian prime minister, unless you take into account the public lesson on democracy he received from vice president Kamala Harris?
Our relationship with the world is one of hesitancy. Mention China to anyone, and the reaction is one of awe. Mention India in the same breath, and people would hem and haw and, finally, just shake their head as if to say ‘we can’t figure out what is happening there’.
The outcome is that as a nation, despite inherent advantages, we seem to be descending towards irrelevance in global affairs. The world may tolerate us; but we will unfortunately never become an integral part of global geopolitics.
This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner journalist Maria Ressa, during her acceptance speech, had posed the question ‘What are you willing to sacrifice for Truth’? Indians have to answer an additional question ‘What are we willing to sacrifice for a vibrant, representative democracy’?
(Sunil Mahajan, a financial consultant and professor, has over three decades’ experience in the corporate sector, consultancy, and academics. He has recently authored a textbook on Corporate Finance, published by the Cambridge University Press.)