Notes from a year of unease

Following a year of debilitating problems, restoring India’s image in 2021 will not be easy

Updated - December 28, 2020 01:11 pm IST

Published - December 28, 2020 12:15 am IST

An Army helicopter flies over a mountain range in Leh on December 3, 2020.

An Army helicopter flies over a mountain range in Leh on December 3, 2020.

The year 2020 was a debilitating one for much of the world, India included. India had more than its share of problems. As 2020 comes to a close, it might be worthwhile to take a hard look at these issues to ensure that 2021 does not become another wasted year.

Pandemic and other issues

The COVID-19 pandemic, which embraced every segment of Indian society and at a conservative estimate afflicted more than a crore of its citizens (leading to about 1.5 lakh fatalities), was the most insidious threat. News of the availability of more than one vaccine for treatment of COVID-19 has by no means changed the element of fatalism that has gripped society.

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Apart from the pandemic, 2020 witnessed other events that aggravated the sense of unease. Since April, India has confronted an unprecedented situation on the border with China in eastern Ladakh . Unprovoked Chinese aggression at several points even led to the death of a score of Indian soldiers . Ever since, the border has remained live; as of now there is no end in sight. Chinese intransigence has led to a grave hiatus in India-China relations.

Internal problems such as Naxalite violence and Jammu and Kashmir endured during much of 2020. The resentment caused by the altered status of J&K and the incarceration of political leaders has yet to subside, even as J&K held elections to its District Development Councils . West Bengal is beginning to resemble a ‘war zone’ as it prepares for Assembly elections in 2021. Relations between Delhi and Kolkata are at their nadir today, and grave concerns exist about violence during the elections. The divide between West Bengal and the Centre is also mirrored in the relations between the Centre and other Opposition-ruled States, a grim commentary on the state of Centre-State relations today.

Highly damaging from the point of view of any established democracy was the resort to populist demagoguery, mainly by the ruling dispensation intended to obscure ground realities, to achieve desired political ends. This has led to unprecedented levels of political polarisation. Linked to this is also a policy of engineering defections which has plumbed new depths. The recourse to vitriolic public discourse is again a sad commentary on India’s democracy today. Not entirely unrelated to this is the diminishing role and utility of Parliament as a platform for an honest exchange of views. The sanctity of Parliament was further undermined in 2020 with sessions being dispensed with under various pretexts.

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On other parameters as well, 2020 proved to be a bad year. The economy is in recession. India has slipped further down the scale in the Human Development Index. Slippages have occurred in the Global Economic Freedom Index. New items of legislation on social issues (a law against forced conversion by marriage, for instance) tend to aggravate an already divisive polity. The farmers’ agitation is another instance where official intransigence has led to a situation in which the Supreme Court had sought to intervene, though without tangible results.

Challenges for the year ahead

Restoring India’s image in 2021 will, hence, not be easy. The moot question is where to begin. For all the criticism, and notwithstanding a perceived decline on many parameters, three aspects in favour of the ruling dispensation stand out: a string of electoral successes for the ruling party; the personal popularity of the Prime Minister; and the absence of any serious competitor on the national stage. This provides the ruling party with a relative degree of freedom to undertake major changes, including structural shifts, provided it is not overly consumed by the euphoria that it has decimated the Opposition and faces no real challenge.

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Whether those in authority will display sufficient sagacity to recognise this is the key question that will decide the future of 2021. Winning elections is one aspect. Achieving an emotional connect is another. More critical, however, is the need to deliver on promises and understand the seriousness of newer challenges the nation faces.

New thinking is a sine qua non if India is to bounce back from a situation that was catastrophic by any standard. It may need a total makeover of the decision-making process and the giving up of many entrenched ideas and concepts. More than anything else, the tendency of some in authority to indulge in rhetorical flourishes must be avoided; they must aim instead at achieving tangible outcomes. It is the ability of a government to deliver on current issues that matter in the final reckoning, and for this the government must demonstrate effective leadership. It might be best if the authorities begin by ticking off a list of problems left over from 2020, and consider how best to achieve results.

In the realm of foreign policy, India must not remain content or satisfied with the current stand-off with China in the Ladakh sector. India should think of what better options are available to it to resolve a conflict that is certainly working to its disadvantage, and is enabling many of its neighbours to play China against India. If India is to be viewed as the only nation in Asia that can stand-up to the China challenge, it must come up with a whole new paradigm of ideas on which further actions can be formulated. Statements critical of China, even amounting to abuse in many instances, are hardly an answer to the most serious foreign policy challenge the country faces.

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The state of the economy should be next. Mere claims that the economy has rebounded hardly suffice. India must seek, in all honesty, to enhance its competitive advantage vis-a-vis other nations which, according to various global indices, appear to be performing better than India. Misleading concepts that an export-oriented economic strategy is damaging — implicitly suggesting that India should look inward rather than outwards to enlarge its economy — need to be rejected, and India should enhance its export capacity. India’s real strength flows from its diversity, and its ability to utilise all available opportunities. In 2021, we need to see India’s genius blooming in full measure. Side by side with this, all attempts to tamper with technological and academic excellence, as prompted in some quarters during 2020, need to be avoided.

The other pressing challenge in 2021 would be job creation for the youth, who are India’s most abiding asset. The government must take urgent steps to set right the disruptions in the labour market caused by the pandemic and other contributory factors. Creating new jobs in new industries should be a critical requirement. Stimulating demand would ensure growth in job opportunities, and this should go hand in hand with this task. The importance of such measures must not be underestimated.

Also read | Economic revival beating predictions: RBI bulletin

Restoring confidence

Next year must be the year in which a serious attempt is made by the government, and Delhi in particular, to restore confidence in constitutional proprieties, practices and principles. There is an impression amongst those who have differences or disagreements with the ruling dispensation at the Centre that the latter is violating the principles and rules sanctified by the Constitution, and that the Opposition’s rights are being steadily undermined. The intention, according to the latter, is to achieve single-party rule across the entire nation.

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It could well be argued that this is a total misunderstanding or misreading of the actions taken by the Centre, but it is apparent that there is a crisis of confidence which is affecting the body politic. In these circumstances, perceptions appear to have as much impact as facts. In 2021, this impression needs to be reversed. The starting point would be effecting an improvement in Centre-State relations, particularly between Delhi and States ruled by Opposition parties. 2021 could well be the make-or-break point as far as this delicate balance enshrined in our federal Constitution is concerned. As digital technology advances, other concerns that an unduly centralised Central government could use this to further reduce the independent authority of States will again need to be dispelled. Effective cooperation between the Centre and the States must be restored as early as possible to instil confidence about India’s democratic future.

M.K. Narayanan is former National Security Advisor and former Governor of West Bengal

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