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Can India Become The Next Superpower Post the Pandemic?

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

In our lives, the incidents that leave marks on our memories and habits are those for which we find ourselves unprepared. The history of this world is impressed with incidents that have hit hard due to unpreparedness—for example, the world wars, the whole series of pandemics, and the era of colonialism. The world wars became the reason for building mediums to manage the influence of might in the world; the pandemics accelerated the creation of institutions to manage healthcare systems; the British colonialism developed a sense of national conservatism and intensified the call for sovereignty. The current pandemic is also making many things happen and will definitely alter the current world order. But the issue of concern is that the influencers are still the western nations as has been the case in history, and hence, it is necessary to decode the patterns. It will also help define what India’s worldview looks like when it is the nation in high demand with its scientifically controversial game-changer medicine, Hydroxychloroquine. A little bit of history first:

British Raj, Epidemics And Its Impact On India

In British Indian history, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Indian peasants were forced to even worse deaths than what people are witnessing during the current pandemic. The same can be observed for the slave trade in African nations from the same rulers, i.e., the Europeans. Then, the world was literally experiencing the concept of “survival of the fittest and the strongest”. Governments were overtaken by the colonial powers to establish extractive institutions and systems. They were systematically designed to drain wealth, resources, knowledge, and labor from the colonies to the ruler’s homeland, i.e., today’s Europe. Today, the claim of many Asian cultural historians regarding several transforming inventions and discoveries have attracted controversies, but the question which remains unanswered is, why the major chunk of modern inventions took place during the colonial centuries—not before or after that? Is there something like narrative manipulation

The current world is born out of a system that was fundamentally based on three elements—colonialism, exploitation, and enslavement. The same powers and apparatus were used to give the world its current shape with a changed perspective of development, responsibility, and sustainability. Overall, globalization has helped the world to be a prosperous place, as said, but it has also brought greater peril to those who are poor. We are witnessing two things simultaneously—increasing global threats and sustained debate on sustainable development; utter contradiction.

The Present World Order

It is true that the current global narrative of development, which has taken roots over the past few decades, is part of the legacy which was substantially manufactured with the idea of conquest and colonization by the global North. The highly industrialized West categorized itself today as ‘developed’ and the global South is basically ‘developing’. In 1700 CE (just before the British arrived in India), the share of the Indian subcontinent in global GDP was 27% which came down to startling 3% by the time they left India whereas their share went up from 20% to 60% . Similar is the case with the role of extractive institutions in fattening the income gap in African nations. This means, it is not an extreme sentence to say that the current “developed” global North sustains because the blood running in its vein is from the global South. Today’s highly industrialized global North is made up of the raw materials from the global South. Post world wars, after the UN came into being, some visionary leaders tried to create a global governance framework. Yet, the West couldn’t keep itself aloof from hijacking the global institutions, and thus, came the current status of all global institutions. 

Recently, WHO has been called “China-centric” by the American president; earlier the negative stance of the United States in the Paris Deal on climate action; the unilateral actions of North Korea; the lifetime presidency assumption by President Xi—the main man behind the debt trap of China through BRI; the authoritarianism in Russia; the Brexit; and opposition-less democracy in India have been some of the significant incidents in recent days. These incidents are significant because each of these nations is big enough that their internal readjustment has the potential to impact the global order. And the major point to be noted here is that almost all the nations which dominate the UN are more or less occupied in their own readjustment. So, there remains very little scope for them to help smaller, deprived or dependent nations.

The two criteria which defined the membership to the highest table at the UN are military power and economic power. But the coronavirus has proved both these to be absolutely stunned. Does this indicate the need for a new track of help in global order? Does this open a new horizon for aspirant nations like India to provide the relevant leads to the world? In my opinion—YES. This is the time when India has the opportunity to correct many of its historically lost opportunities and alter the leadership status-quo of the globe. The only prerequisite is a speedy comeback of the Indian economy post COVID-19. Will India be able to do it, and if yes, how?

India at the UN||Credits: The United Nations

Where Does India Stand At Present?

The current status of India is quite sensitive as it is in the middle of the fight with the coronavirus. India, heavily westernized in its cities, showered with beer and whiskey and pumped with the smoke of cigarettes and cars and the hot air of the air-conditioners, has now got some time to reflect and restore. It has also come to know the size of the group which sleeps without food in the night if it doesn’t get work in the day. It has witnessed the fickle status of its healthcare system’s capacity; the humane, friendly and innovative police force (if we exclude some instances); the domination of superstition in minds of the people in the remote areas, and the organic unity of citizens when the nation’s health is at peril. India is supposed to spend 2.5% of its GDP on healthcare which comes around ₹1,45,000 crores in 2020–21 whereas India’s planning was to spend only ₹70,000 crores. The COVID-19 fight has definitely changed the picture of the balance sheet of the government and it will be interesting to see to what depth the FRBM Act is invoked in the coming future. 

Narendra Modi and Donald Trump
Narendra Modi and Donald Trump

In the global arena, the romance of PM Modi with global influencers, the unconventional meeting styles, the sustained infatuation of the global Indian diaspora have definitely celebrated the Indian PM. The initiative of the Global Solar Alliance proved to be universally recognized, leaving a bright footprint of the Indian PM on the globe. Although the initiative proposes an alternative to the oil industry, and that means an angst vibe from the Gulf who, somehow, the Indian diplomats have been successful to keep aloof from the mainstream negotiations. It is a fact that the global fights are yet centred on oil. The current world order compels us to conclude that the acceleration of energy services is the most popular road map for development, and the fastest race for development ensures the highest volume of carbon emissions. And hence, it raises a question mark on the seriousness of the influencers towards designing and actualizing the global climate action governance framework. 

At home, India has been on its toes in the last couple of years. We have witnessed a number of transformative, historic and irreversible interventions by the government and the corporates. At times, one wonders how India would have reacted to such a deadly attack of the coronarirus had there been no initiatives like Digital India, Start-Up India, Stand-Up India, Aayushmaan Bharat, the Saubhagya schemes for pan-India electricity, the Jio-movement for internet availability and Jan Dhan Account for financial communication. These schemes have penetrated each Indian’s life, and hence 1.3 billion lives of India have been mobilized and directly connected to the government communication system. The charismatic leadership of PM Modi has been a catalyst to make all this happen. But, despite a fat allocation of budget to Make In India initiative, the institutional deadlocks and scarcities have failed us. The mismanaged establishment of cities made the living conditions worse, and the government was forced to prioritize the renovation of the same through huge investment in Smart Cities Initiatives. India is yet mulling with its education system about how to bring more readiness in its output.

Overall, it seems quite well on the track of being a guide to the world but the softness of its strategic power is yet not independent. We need to build robust infrastructure for almost all three major sectors: agriculture, manufacturing, and service. By acting proactively in this crises, it is being globally recognized that India has taken a competitive advantage by being less affected. Hence, this global halt and the deep shock on the mindset is a crossroad that provides India an opportunity to redefine global governance in almost the coming 5 years. 

What Should India Do?

This is a new world already. The outlook of the masses has been altered, the mindset has been changed, the vulnerability of all the countries has been exposed, leadership at each level is being tested, quality of infrastructure is being scanned to the deepest, the robustness of systemic management is literally pushed back, quality of products are taking the toughest test and social fabric is being tested both at the local and at the global level. With the aspiration of getting at the high table as a member, India has to take decisive and quick actions, of which some may be as following:

  1. Prioritize the Health Care system: We need to understand that investment in the health industry is not similar to that in the public health domain. The health industry may be flooded with money and yet public health may not be as effective. So, we need to make an aggressive plan for optimum utilization of the investment being done in the Health industry by pushing the local bodies to form standing committees at the panchayat and council level. The standing committee members should be capacitated with training and maybe incentivized with recognition at the district level for their intensive care for their communities.
  2. Push the Panchayats to come up with small-scale enterprises: The Panchayats are called local governments, and are primarily given the responsibility to come up with planning for economic development and social justice as per the Constitution of India. But unfortunately, they have remained a government body without any source of revenue of their own. At present, they are nothing more than a dependent body that implements higher-tier governments’ schemes. If the government has to actualize the dream that was seen through the Start-Up India, Stand-Up India and Make in India, the government must channelize some of its funds, that are being released as per the Finance Commission’s recommendations, for setting up small-scale enterprises through Panchayat Bodies. The SHG network may be a crucial key to establish economic activity centers in rural India. To bring back the economy and do a restart where there is nothing, COVID-19 may be a golden turning point.
  3. Push the digitization of the economy harder: The lockdown has also done a test on the online infrastructure that is available in India. The payment and whole banking system have remained intact and the internet banking underlined its importance. The Sensex is yet positive (although fragile) as Indian revenue generation is more focused on the IT industry and operates almost entirely online. But the local administration is yet to go online, and therefore, needs a push. Virologists have warned that the coronavirus is not the last one and future may witness more similar situations, hence the society and the government also have to think now about making online platforms for all communications. For easier and safer platforms to facilitate public grievance, video feedback may be a way. The major benefit of going online is that it is directly curbing the carbon emissions; it is less time-consuming and cost-efficient, and hence increases per capita income. The byproduct is transparency and accountability.

It is not necessary to mention that the government must look after the macroeconomic affairs because it has a larger influence in the current system, and the lobby will pull the government to do what it needs.

The Vacuum In The Future Provides India An Opportunity

India taking the lead of SAARC in its COVID-19 response||Credits: The Diplomat

The reformative actions in a country of India’s size are enough to transform the global tally of development. The current global order is driven by an export-based economy of ready goods and expert services, which is by default hostile to the developing nations. This is a period of time when the global debt provider, China, and the military weapon supplier, the USA, both are deeply injured by COVID-19, and there does not seem a very conducive environment as both have very authoritarian leaders. And that leads to the instability of UN organizations. Thus, there seems to be a vacuum coming into the global leadership position. Having a decisive and majorly accepted leader as Prime Minister Modi, with a stable government, India must aspire to be a ‘Developing Power’. The current pandemic is all set to slump several countries’ treasuries and they would be needing two things: support in the Pharmaceutical industry;  and hand-holding support in revamping the care-system. India is probably the most credible nation having robust experience in both these, and hence, best positioned to curate a new global chain of influence.   

You must be to comment.
  1. Priyadarshini Chitrangada

    This is such a brilliant article 🙂

    1. Ankit

      Thanks a lot, Priyadarshini!

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