The outlook for 2024, for the world and India

Existing geostrategic contradictions are likely to intensify, while India may face an inflection point

December 27, 2023 12:16 am | Updated 09:31 am IST

‘The world is living in a time of great peril’

‘The world is living in a time of great peril’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

What is apparent as 2024 dawns is that global risks and uncertainties are only likely to increase, reminding us that we are living in a time of great peril. The new year can be expected to be even less safe and uncertain than the previous two years. An unfortunate aspect is that the existing order is being challenged as much by architects of the ‘rules based international order’, as it is by persons who declare it outdated.

Again, existing geostrategic contradictions are likely to intensify. The war in Ukraine, though stalemated at present, could well become highly combustible as 2024 progresses. A Biden victory in the United States presidential election may well depend on the way the war in Ukraine turns, as a decisive defeat for Putin’s Russia (even though this appears unlikely at present), would boost his chances. Ukraine’s Zelensky, conscious of the sagging support for Ukraine in Europe and elsewhere, could well attempt ‘a last throw of the dice’, and resort to desperate measures. Mr. Putin, for his part, may be tempted to go to extremes (not excluding resort to sub-optimal nuclear weapons) to secure a victory in Ukraine.

A heating up of the Middle East cauldron, caused by Hamas’s unprovoked assault on Israel on October 7 this year, again has the potential to light a ‘prairie fire’ in 2024. This could singe many more countries in West Asia. The situation is not helped by the West’s ‘hypocrisy’, which seeks to draw a fine distinction between the violence practised by Hamas, and the ‘precise targeting’ of so-called Hamas troublemakers by Israel and the western alliance. The situation is already accelerating changes in the geopolitics of West Asia, where battle lines are gradually shifting: Iran-Russia-China are already extending support to nations across West Asia, thus challenging the West’s (essentially U.S.) leadership of the global strategic commons. It could have an impact well beyond West Asia as well. In this backdrop, the West would be well advised to act with care in other regions (such as the Indo-Pacific) to avoid upsetting the existing strategic balance.

For India, 2024 holds out many possibilities. The general election is scheduled for mid-2024, and the ruling dispensation is displaying reasonable confidence about the outcome, greatly buoyed by its recent election victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. This does not, however, preclude the existence of some ‘black swans’, which may need to be attended to, specially as far as the economy is concerned.

Keeping track of China, the region

Sino-Indian relations will remain stalemated during much of 2024, with neither side displaying any accommodation of each other’s view point. China remains convinced that India is already a part of the U.S.-dominated anti-China alliance (however misplaced this perception might be), which is acting as a major impediment to any improvement in relations. A direct confrontation between India and China, however, appears unlikely during 2024. Even if China’s economy continues to decline, and the West harps on this fact as an index of diminution of China’s influence across the region and beyond, there is a slender possibility of China embarking upon some ‘adventurist actions’ in the Sino-Indian border regions. Mao’s unprovoked aggression against India in 1962 in the wake of the failure of his Great Leap Forward Movement in 1958 is, however, something that the Indian establishment needs to keep in mind at all times.

India’s external relations in some other areas also merit attention in 2024. For instance, if the Russia-China axis becomes even stronger as 2024 progresses, with a concomitant weakening of Russia-India ties, it will have a direct impact on India’s relations with, and accessibility to, Central Asia. India will need to avoid such a situation.

In its immediate neighbourhood again, India may face an uncertain situation in 2024. Relations with Afghanistan, which have been virtually non-existent for some time, will remain much the same. Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives have recently come under pressure from China, and this has the potential of reducing their dependence on India.

In West Asia, with the possible exception of the United Arab Emirates, India’s influence appears to be diminishing. As more West Asian countries break free from the clutches of the West, and tend to gravitate towards China and Russia, India’s position in the region will become even more tenuous.

Internal dynamics

The internal situation will require very careful watching. The atmosphere is certain to be highly surcharged, with both the ruling and Opposition forces preparing for a ‘no holds barred’ electoral battle. A ‘veneer’ of calm masks the intensity of feelings that exist. What is also evident is the extent to which factors such as caste loyalties are dominating the landscape today. What is not evident on the surface is the extent to which social engineering and social fragmentation are being utilised to divide social groups; how electoral autocracy is tending to overwhelm all other factors; and how little or no debate is taking place on key issues of common concern. Artificial Intelligence can be expected to play a larger and a key role this time, to enhance power dynamics of certain groups.

Both in terms of perception and debate, there appears to be an increasing bias towards unitary rather than federal aspects of India’s diversified Constitution.

A pronounced tilt in the case of certain parties to favour a regimented approach to issues and situations, and a bias towards increased centralisation of authority, leaving little or lesser room for manoeuvre at the State level, is also increasingly evident.

Notwithstanding the outcome of the general election, all signs, hence, point to a turbulent period ahead. Parliament, already in disarray, will continue to function in this manner during the whole of 2024. The stand-off in the wake of the recent breach of security in Parliament is a good index of the prevailing mood, and there are few signs that this will change.

An absence of any give or take, evident in the case of the expulsion of the Trinamool Congress Member of Parliament, Mahua Moitra, is a reflection of the current mood in Parliament, where most decisions are based on brute majority. Governors in many States also increasingly demonstrate palpable recalcitrance, aggravating the hiatus between the States and the Centre. All this leaves little slack for improvement in the situation.

The nation may, hence, be approaching an inflection point in 2024. A test case will be how the nation deals with the situation deriving from the recent Supreme Court of India judgment upholding the power of the President of India to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution, together with the reasoning that Article 370 was ‘a transitional provision ‘due to war like conditions that prevailed in parts of the country’. It could well open a Pandora’s box of contentious issues, providing additional ammunition for conflict.

Centre-State ties

All this demands that incumbent political parties at the Centre and in the States have a rethink on what needs to be done in the extant circumstances. Most Opposition parties and several Opposition-led State governments are conditioned to think that opposing the Centre is the sine qua non of their existence, and that they have no obligations, or need, in the present context, to play a more constructive role. State governments have several core advantages in both political and economic matters which could come into play at this juncture. But this is not likely to happen. The Centre, for its part, needs to better comprehend the importance of improved Central-State relations, recognising that the Centre is stronger when the States are too; if both are together, they can deliver a better value proposition that neither can provide on its own. Inherently, all this involves a better understanding of newer forces at play and of the new realities of power. Whether this will happen in 2024, however, seems highly doubtful.

M.K. Narayanan is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser, and a former Governor of West Bengal

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