India in the post-pandemic world

Sujatha Singh

Sujatha Singh  

The manner in which the country deals with the crisis will determine its place in the future world order

Yes, we all know that the world we once knew has gone, perhaps forever. Much has changed and will continue to. What has not changed though, is human nature itself. The way we react, as a species to the unknown, or to an existential threat, on a scale not experienced in recent times, to something that we cannot quite comprehend as yet, in its entirety.

We have arrived, once again, at the boundaries of the human race’s collective knowledge, and it is sobering to be reminded that what we do not know is much greater than what we do know, about ourselves and the world we live in.

A leadership role

The fact that there is no end in sight to the COVID-19 crisis does not prevent us from making prognoses of what a post-COVID-19 world may look like. The pandemic has added heft to arguments of foreign policy analysts across the entire spectrum of strategic thinking, from nationalists and anti-globalists, to advocating a more robust multilateralism and a leadership role for India in mobilising international cooperation.

I believe, however, that before we get too involved in the contours of a post-pandemic world, we first need to think about where we are headed as a post-pandemic India. Yes, there will be a churning as nations scramble for advantage in the world order as the pandemic recedes, but I think we need to be more concerned at this point of time with the social and economic churning under way within our own country, accentuated and magnified by the COVID-19 crisis.

The role that India plays in the post-pandemic world order will be determined by how we deal with the crisis now, and how we emerge from it. This, in turn, depends on certain fundamental factors — the quality of leadership, the quality of administration at all levels, (Centre, State, district and village), the robustness of institutional frameworks, the quality of health care, and our social coherence as a people.

Admittedly, the manner in which some of these have functioned recently, does not engender great confidence. Further, the manner in which we have dealt with the pandemic until now has made it painfully clear, as nothing else has in recent times, that there are two Indias — an India in which social distancing is possible and an India in which it is not.

Crucial investments

The COVID-19 epidemic has mercilessly highlighted our shortcomings and our failures, even as we pride ourselves on being the world’s largest democracy and its fifth largest economy. It has highlighted our age-old fault lines of caste, class and creed. There are still too many inequalities, and too many of us who have been left behind, on whom the effects of the lockdown have been the most severe, compounding the economic distress of recent years.

Yes, the lockdown was necessary in order to pause the spread of the pandemic. However the manner of its implementation, without the government of India even foreseeing, much less planning for, the consequences of such a step, or coordinating with States in advance, or spelling out how it would support the millions so affected, was harsh in the extreme on the poorer sections of our population. It was starkly reflected in the thousands of migrant workers believing (not without reason) that they were invisible to the Establishment, and not knowing what else to do, leaving by foot, trying to reach the only safety net they had — extended families and homes in their villages.

There lies grave danger here, of both the health and the economic consequences of the crisis intersecting amongst our poor, with potentially devastating consequences for them as well as for our overall attempt to manage the novel coronavirus.

It often takes a crisis to bring about fundamental change. Can one dare hope that this crisis too will bring about such change for the good? That it will bring about the policies and mindsets necessary to deal with the injustices and inequalities so painfully magnified by recent events?

It is time for the government to lay out a comprehensive road map to deal with both the health and the economic consequences of the crisis, and to make long overdue investments on the massive scale needed, in universal health care, education and social security. Or at least to plan for it, and to raise the resources to back these plans with adequate funding, regardless of the fiscal deficit that will follow.

In its absence, we run the risk of social disorder, as witnessed in Bandra (Mumbai), Surat (Gujarat) and other parts of India where our poor are in lockdown. Growing perceptions of injustice and of the government’s indifference to their plight could well lead to widespread outrage that would be difficult to control.

The investment that needs to be made in the millions of our people who live in poverty, or on the edge of it, are not merely welfare measures. They are fundamental to our socioeconomic transformation, which in itself is an imperative. Also, if India is to be in any position to make use of opportunities that emerge in the reordering of the global economy as the pandemic recedes.

On the global stage

In parallel with an inclusive, all-of-India effort on the domestic front, India needs to be part of international efforts to deal with the COVID-19 crisis — multilateral, regional or bilateral. It makes sound humanitarian as well as strategic sense for us to supply medicines of which we are the major producers (dependent though we may be, on China for 70% of the active pharmaceutical ingredients needed to produce them), to other countries. It is also important that we participate in international efforts towards finding a vaccine and ramp up capacities to produce it in the quantities needed, both for our own people and for the world.

Yes, the world will have changed by the time the crisis recedes, but we, the human race, will continue to be what we have always been — relentless in our search for wealth and power, both within nations and without. On the international front, nations will continue to strive for strategic advantage in furthering their interests and constrained by realpolitik in striving for the common good. Countries that emerge in positions of relative economic advantage will present competing visions for the post-pandemic world order. If we wish to play a leadership role and to present a vision for a more inclusive world defined by international cooperation, then we need to back it with our own example, on the domestic as well as the international fronts.

I believe that in any post-pandemic world order that emerges, regardless of whether it is U.S.-centric or China-centric, there is no scenario in which India, a universe in itself, and home to one-sixth of humanity, will not occupy a place. The question is this: Will we emerge as part of the problem or as part of the solution? Will we emerge weaker or stronger as a nation? Will we have been guided by divisive political agendas that deepen our fault lines? Or will we have worked towards an inclusive India that embraces all of us in its fold, regardless of caste, class or creed? The pandemic has brought us to an inflection point. How we deal with it will determine our place in the future world order.

Sujatha Singh is Former Foreign Secretary

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