Much as we dislike grumbling about the state of the nation, recent events leave us with no choice but to package our message in a bundle of barbed wire. How we wish we could like many of our compatriots puff up our chest with patriotic pride and declare in a resonant voice that the world is listening with rapt attention the pronouncements of the Vishwaguru. Alas, however hard we try it is becoming impossible to deny the harsh reality.
Don’t get us wrong. This is not the preface to review the underwhelming appearance the Indian PM made at the UNGA. Nothing can compare with the rousing reception he had received during his past visits to America—the bonhomie with not one but two former US presidents. NaMo flaunted his first name familiarity with his good friends Barack and Donald, and there was infectious euphoria in the air. This time even the welcome organised by the members of Indian Diaspora appeared to lack spontaneity and genuine enthusiasm. But we digress. This wasn’t a state visit and no breach of protocol was committed when no high ranking official received the Indian PM at the porch of White House.
What rankled was that the speech at the UNGA wasn’t soul-stirring either. Much of the thunder was stolen by the formation of AUKUS excluding India from these new Anglo-sphere strategic alliance devaluing the QUAD in a dramatic stroke. QUAD’s role has been redefined. It can now concentrate on ‘critical’ issues like climate change, renewable energy, vaccine cooperation to vanquish Covid, space exploration, and cultural and technology interactions. The Indian PM did draw the audience’s attention to the threat of terrorism but it is difficult to believe that the alarm sounded was taken seriously.
As usual, Modiji showed great restraint and didn’t demean himself by naming the greatest threat to our security and world peace—Pakistan and China—and perhaps this was the best he could do. It was left to a junior member of the IFS to give a ‘befitting reply’ not mincing words to Pakistan. The permanent members of the UNSC were more preoccupied with the perplexing problem of Afghanistan.
Pakistan tried its best to let the representative of the Taliban government in Kabul to address the UN but didn’t succeed. However, its campaign supported by the Chinese did manage to keep the Afghan ambassador appointed out as well. No one can blame the Indian PM for the deterioration in the external milieu—the US has been accused by France, its NATO ally, of betrayal regarding AUKUS and the badly mismanaged retreat from Afghanistan. The Germans and other members of the EU were no less shell-shocked. Everyone has had to recalibrate their diplomacy. What worries us is the misplaced self-confidence that India can still provide the lead to the rest of the world.
The Indian PM wasn’t wrong when he reminded the world that India is not a stranger to the democratic ideas. But many were left confused when he claimed that India was the ‘Oldest Democracy’ in the world. True, there were republics in India centuries before the birth of Christ but neither these nor the Greek City States can be equated with the concept of modern liberal democracies. When the US Vice President met the Indian PM, her references to obligations of major democracies to protect minorities, human rights were not so much in appreciation of Indian democracy but as thinly veiled critical concern.
Interest of Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self-reliant India) doesn’t necessarily converge with the idea of America First. As a matter of fact, the chinks in our self-reliance armour were glaring when we boasted about our vaccine production capacity and had to retract discreetly when our dependence for Advance Pharmaceutical Intermediaries and Peripherals on China and Europe was exposed. Nor can we keep boasting about our rate of economic growth. India like all other countries has been hit hard by succeeding waves of the coronavirus and the lockdowns to contain contagion have triggered unemployment and inflation. The government’s efforts to kickstart the stagnant economy are yet to bear fruit. It would be wise to keep our feet firmly planted on earth and not rouse wild expectations. Unfortunately, the pressures of electoral politics force the top leadership to take their eyes off the ball in play.
It was hoped that the opposition parties would be able to come together—cooperate with the Central Government in these trying times but they are busy playing dangerous games of their own. The case of the INC is tragic. With inexperienced persons at the helm, surrounded by sycophants, the rudderless ship flounders repeatedly. The change of guard in Punjab has treated us to many twists and turns, stings in the tail reminiscent of a B or C grade reality show on the idiot box. Navjot Sidhu will return to the world of canned laughter and canned applause but the people of Punjab will pay the price of the hubris and folly of the not-so-young ‘democratic’ dynasts.
Jawaharlal Nehru University