PUNE: The world is in the throes of a global pandemic. It is natural for people to speculate about the shape of things to come. At such a time, it is also important to bear in mind that this is not the first global challenge that we have faced in this century.
The first, in fact, was 9/11. The attack on the United States of America had global repercussions. Our lives changed in terms of physical security and our world changed. Terrorism, of which we had been a victim for two decades, was finally acknowledged as a global threat, and, personal inconveniences aside, the world has become a safer place because of the international combat against terrorism. India gained advantage from this crisis.
Scarcely half-a-decade on, the world was threatened by a financial meltdown that began in the United States and became a global problem in short order. Again, our lives changed in terms of financial security and our world changed. The ending of blind faith in the superiority of Western financial, monetary and ratings systems meant that emerging economies began to trust their own institutions to a greater degree; the G-20 replaced the G-7 as the purveyor of global economic and financial well-being; and the creation of non-Western alternative financial institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank and the New Development [BRICS] Bank broke the Western monopoly over the global financial system. Again, in net terms, India emerged a net gainer from this crisis.
This time it is neither a challenge to our national security nor our economic security. It is, first and foremost, a challenge to our personal safety. We are all equally challenged irrespective of faith, class, age or gender. It is the social fabric that will be tested this time. Whether we emerge as a gainer from this will, therefore, depend on how we handle the public health crisis of course, but also on the recovery plan as well as the lessons we draw for the future direction of our nation.
The lacunae in the current international system lie exposed before us. Over the past seventy years, these institutions have withered away because the dominant powers have arrogated authority through electoral manipulation and Secretarial appointments to ensure overall control. Capability and competence have become handmaidens to the mighty and powerful who, since 1945, have arrogated to themselves the permanent responsibility to deal with the world’s problems even after the world has fundamentally changed. The fact that the UN Security Council has so far not met even once in the face of a truly global catastrophe begs the question: who decides when a global problem becomes a matter of international peace? We cannot depend any longer on such a multilateral system. India should lead the call for change.
International cooperation is also faltering when most needed, if stories about predatory behaviour on the part of one superpower and price-gouging on the part of an aspiring superpower are to be believed. But we would err if we believe that this is a post-COVID situation. On issues ranging from trade to migration, the very nations that built the post-World War II global order were already undermining it. What was earlier benevolently called ‘market forces’ is now being dubbed ‘unfair trade practices’; legitimate migration that built and sustained developed economies for five decades is being looked upon as threatening domestic employment. The richer North has tackled the crisis nationally by closing borders and purses. Their claims to global leadership based on wealth and development are hollow words when the world most needs it. This trend will quicken in the post-COVID world as economies struggle to revive and return to normalcy. Our policy planners should not expect anything else.
If the international scenario is cause for despondency, the national experience has been different so far. Central and state leaderships have demonstrated synergy and the nation has by and large followed the call of its leadership. For a people considered the world over to be noisy, undisciplined, argumentative and individualistic, Indians have shown how a populous and diverse nation comes together in a crisis. If this is sustained through the remainder of the COVID pandemic, we will emerge on the other side of this darkness with our national image burnished and we can hold ourselves up to the rest of the world as an example of how one-sixth of humanity does things democratically.
The rebuilding of India post-COVID will be a challenge. Dependence on foreign governments would be folly. The 20th century notion that all countries should not produce all things but merely those they are good at making should be revisited. India is not just any country. It is one-sixth of humanity. Whether it is ventilators and personal protection equipment on the one side or semi-conductors and advanced steels on the other, there is no option but to Make in India. We neglected our manufacturing during the industrial revolution in East Asia in the 1980s and again after the global financial crisis in 2009. This time our size, population and markets must be leveraged strategically. The federal and state governments must work in tandem to identify specific companies and industries that are needed in India and meet their specific requirements. Personal outreach and sustained hand-holding need to be the order of the day. Companies will come if they see profit in our market. Our private sector should be incentivised to innovate and manufacture especially in sunrise industries. Special policies should be crafted to attract top overseas Indian talent to set up national laboratories in cutting edge technologies for which governments should provide seed money and minimise bureaucratic regulation and management. National or state-level brand-building no longer cuts ice and power-point presentations are not the answer to Make in India any longer. If success is to be got, it will be through work on the field, not on the computer. It can be done. All the East Asian Tigers did it this way. But it calls for a partnership between government and industry as equals and on the basis of mutual respect, not mutual suspicion.
COVID is not likely to reverse globalisation. But it will spur the trend towards localisation. During this crisis, it is neither the international community nor national authorities that are servicing the day-to-day requirements of the people. It is the local community. Residents in a single high-rise, in a Housing Society, in a street or in a mohalla, have banded together in the face of personal adversity to find innovative solutions to live and work. Supplies are being sourced and delivered locally through neighbourhood stores. Large e-retailers have been unable to meet the challenge for whatever reason but in a crisis such reasons do not matter. Either they can deliver or they cannot. Medical help is also localised. Education and business are being done remotely. It is the use of technology that has enabled local communities to survive. The mobile network and the digital payment platform have ensured survival. Those who felt that BHIM and JAM were mere gimmicks may yet have to revisit their thinking; these are our lifeline.
The lockdown has also had unintended benefits—clean air and water and traffic decongestion. It has allowed for introspection and for re-assessment of priorities at all levels—governmental, societal and personal. It has shown that communities are not merely a rural phenomenon; they can exist in urban environments if properly enabled through technology and good governance. The strengthening of telecom networks, the guarantee of stable power and water supply and other urban services and the provision of neighbourhood schools, hospitals and stores should be the new priorities of all governments in India. This will encourage communities to work from home and manage their lives more efficiently around their neighbourhoods, with concomitant positive impact on urban congestion and the environment. This will also mitigate rural migration, if similar services are available in the district townships. Post-COVID, therefore, the government should take an early decision on 5G as well as make a determined effort to overcome the remaining hurdles for operationalising the Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Kolkata dedicated freight corridors. These have a real potential to unlock huge economic benefits and strengthen the trend of area-localisation within a globalised world.
So far as international relations are concerned, the U.S. will be locked down for the presidential election in November and cannot be expected to provide sustained global leadership for the remainder of the year. The Europeans have been caught up in their own public health crisis, proving the point once again that the EU is unable to take up the reins of leadership in a real global crisis despite the individual strengths of its largest nation states—Germany, France and Italy. China will seek to claim the mantle of leadership, precisely as she did during the Asian financial ‘flu’ of 1998 and the global financial meltdown of 2008, with finances and loans linked to reciprocal acknowledgement of its Great and Benevolent Power status. But this time it will be difficult. Notwithstanding the great efforts of its spokespersons to whitewash China’s failure to warn the global community in the early period of the disease and with its focus on burnishing its own image, the Chinese have been unable to stem the tide of disappointment and distrust in global communities. How can there be a Community of Shared Destiny for Mankind when the ‘ideator’ itself does not act in a manner befitting this grand concept? India’s Prime Minister took the lead in calling for a G-20 meeting. This initiative should be matched with greater willingness to allocate resources, personnel and political will in taking global leadership on public health. The ideas for a new global arrangement to deal with the next pandemic through a combination of technology and international rules should be our priority. An expert team to ideate on this could be considered.
If India gets it right this time, in both domestic and international terms, we would be embarking on the road to taking our rightful place in the world. India has every chance of emerging from this crisis too as a gainer.
(The author retired recently as India’s Foreign Secretary. Views expressed in this article are personal.)