India faces a confluence of three interlinked crises. The Covid-19 pandemic is first and foremost a health crisis that threatens millions of people. It is swamping the country’s health systems. It is converting a pre-existing economic slowdown into a full-fledged crisis. This second crisis could leave lasting damage in its wake. Of course, the China border crisis completes the triad.
Its timing cannot be divorced from the other two crises. India is struggling with the pandemic, as is much of the world. The US, India’s most powerful ally, is struggling as well. Soon, the presidential election will suck up a lot of that country’s attention. Chinese strategists can’t be oblivious to such realities.
To safely navigate India out of these troubled waters will require considerable thinking, meticulous planning, flawless implementation and teamwork at a national scale. By visualising these three crises as part of a bigger whole, policymakers can craft more effective and efficient responses. This will also help develop much needed synergies between economic policy, foreign policy and national security policy.
Everything begins with understanding the nature and likely impact of these three crises. We must also be willing to learn from past lessons and be ready to innovate and put the country on a credible path of recovery and resilience.
On the economic front, India was in pretty bad shape as Covid-19 struck. Economic growth was slumping, investment was listless, while unemployment and poverty were rising. A clogged financial sector choked the economy even as battered public finances were of limited help. Why was India in that situation? Part of the problem is lack of genuine reforms that could unleash economic activity. Part of the problem lies in enacting destructive policies like demonetisation. The lesson here is to take the advice of experts and think through the consequences of major decisions very carefully.
Of course, we can’t blame the government for the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a global phenomenon. However, could India have had a better policy response? For a month and a half after the first Covid-19 case in India, US President Donald Trump’s visit and the Delhi riots distracted the country. Putting on a show for Trump became a priority. The pandemic was not a priority. The riots are a result of politics that, frankly, is undermining India’s economic and national security.
But even when the government did act, the policy response seemed hurried with little application of mind. The economy came to a screeching halt. Millions of workers walked home listlessly, some dying on the way, even as the entire economy came to a standstill. As our eyes were transfixed on a slow moving humanitarian disaster, the world too was watching. For all the talk of a five trillion dollar economy, the roar of Make in India, and bullet trains connecting smart cities, the reality was entirely different. Limited state capacity and centralisation of decision-making resulted in a breathtakingly incompetent Covid-19 response. Surely this did not escape China’s attention.
By all accounts, the Chinese took their time in preparing for the confrontation at Galwan Valley and at Pangong Tso. They struck at an opportune moment, when India was struggling, and killed and captured Indian officers and soldiers. But it should not have come to this. Locals in the border areas have been raising an alarm over Chinese encroachment of grazing lands for months. The PM’s assurance that not an inch of India is under Chinese control appears divorced from ground realities.
All three crises—health, economic, and national security—could do lasting damage. For example, the economy may not be able to recover to its pre-Covid-19 trajectory for years. In the US, there are fears that the economy may take a decade to recover from the pandemic and related lockdowns. Mind you, the lockdowns in the US were nowhere close to the stringent lockdowns in India. On the national security front too, India’s confrontation with China could have serious implications. Friend and foe alike are taking notice of China’s aggressive use of PM Modi’s statement as a propaganda tool against India.
Despite the severity of these crises, the government can limit the damage and ensure a quicker recovery. While it isn’t possible to offer detailed recommendations through this column, I list broad principles that must inform the government’s policy framework. First, do no harm. Think through the consequences of policies before enacting them. Second, ensure that humanitarian needs and the weakest implementation links receive the highest attention.
Third, decentralise decision-making, ensure transparency and accountability, and effectively communicate information. Fourth, bring in expertise to help fill gaps. It is abundantly clear that the government does not have all the answers. Fifth, especially on national security, ensure that the opposition is fully informed and on board with the government’s strategy.
Finally, it is important for the country to have social inclusion and cohesion. Instead of targeting opposition voices, journalists and dissenters, the government must strengthen democratic institutions. Only a united India, unequivocally wedded to the Constitution’s values, can navigate this perfect storm. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Salman Anees Soz
Deputy Chairperson of the professionals’ wing of the Congress
(Views are personal.Tweets@SalmanSoz)