The recent face-off with China on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the eastern Ladakh region and the significant fatalities on both sides due to violent clashes on 15-16 June in the Galwan Valley bring into sharp focus the challenge of managing China—a country ever intent on asserting its status as an emerging superpower.
Brushing aside the international obloquy it has earned following its dubious role in the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, China continues to flex its muscles to tell the world unequivocally that it will have its way no matter what the rest of the world thinks about it.
India’s growing momentum in building border infrastructure like the Darbuk- Shyok-DBO road and other feeder roads along the LAC was enough to ruffle China and the subsequent developments convey unequivocally that it will not hesitate to use pressure tactics against India in pursuit of its hegemonistic agenda in the Indo-Pacific region.
Unfortunately, an unresolved border problem and China’s weather- proof relations with Pakistan place New Delhi in a vulnerable position vis-a-vis Beijing.
With India struggling to reach the $5 trillion mark in GDP and with defence capabilities not rising fast enough, China privately prefers to call India a noisy, chaotic democracy at best and superciliously refuses to treat India on equal terms.
With the dragon capable of blocking India’s rise by colluding with Pakistan, New Delhi has to make its way speedily up the economic and military ladder to command true respect from the fire-spitting dragon.
This is necessary to counterbalance China’s growing influence in our neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean region.
This is also needed to maintain strategic independence from the US, which wants India to enter into an all-out defence partnership to counter China.
In the aforesaid perspective, slow economic growth, sluggish defence capability building, and uninspiring research and development (R&D) in strategic areas have become threats to our national security.
India has to evolve very imaginative policies and usher in extensive reforms that will accelerate its economic revival and growth, upgrade defence capabilities and establish an extensive defence industry ecosystem.
It also has to address every other issue that has a link to national security, be it infrastructure, water, food, energy security, gainful employment to millions, quality healthcare and education to every citizen, to mention only a few.
This is necessary because any internal strife arising out of socio-economic disabilities could be exploited by the two adversaries to foment unrest within the country.
India cannot afford to fritter away its oft-praised demographic dividend because of poor education, and lack of skills and employment opportunities. It has to accelerate labour-intensive manufacturing to divert its agricultural population to more paying non-agricultural jobs.
We need to set up a world-class R&D system by harnessing the Indian diaspora in the US and other developed countries in order to leapfrog into the league of the most advanced. By now everyone knows that India undertakes reforms only when there is a crisis.
Our collective mindset seems to be indifferent to reforms and the achievement of world-beating excellence in every sphere. How else can we explain the public tolerance of our poor education and health systems?
The economic reforms initiated nearly 30 years ago could not be sustained due to a political mindset averse to critical reforms.
The time lost has been frightfully expensive for the county. We will realise this when we look back and see how our big neighbour has outpaced us and moved far ahead, attaining the position of an international bully by virtue of sheer economic clout and military strength.
The recent announcement of reforms— some of them far reaching as in the case of agriculture—although prompted by a new crisis, does come as a breath of fresh air.
But reforms are coming out only in dribs and drabs, and a lot more remains to be done. For every reform initiated, there are many others in waiting. Water sector reforms initiated eight years ago are still stuck in various stages.
Defence reforms already initiated need to extend to revamping the defence acquisition system, which is a sine qua non for Make in India.
Employment creation on a huge scale will not materialise unless the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) sector is supported with a flexible labour law that will facilitate seasonality of manufacturing and upscaling of production to achieve international competitiveness.
The suspension of labour laws as in Uttar Pradesh will not reassure the investor as continuity is not guaranteed after three years.
It will be sad if the great opportunity for diverting industry to India from China slips away because the ease of doing business is still not perceived by investors as good enough or because there is no stability in policy—things which can be easily set right by the government if it can drive reforms relentlessly.
This raises the need to reform the civil services, which should be playing a reform-friendly, transformational role in governance, shedding its painful incrementalism.
The country needs a modern system of governance that utilises domain experts at the highest policymaking levels of the government. It needs to be led by professionals with impeccable integrity, enormous initiative and unshakeable commitment.
G Mohan Kumar
Former Defence Secretary