The awakening and accompanying challenges
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
If one stretches one’s memory it is rare to find an eventful year like 2019. From the strikes in Balakot to the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA), a single idea joins the key events: nationalism.
India is not alone in the resurgence of the idea. From Donald Trump’s America to Boris Johnson’s Britain, established democracies are rediscovering their nationalist roots. It is fashionable to dismiss this development as ‘populism’—a catchall expression that defies neat delineation but is a popular word to describe anything disliked politically. It is no coincidence that intellectuals across the world do not want to understand the return of nationalism, a feared idea that had been banished decades ago.
Much of the anger and fear is due to concerns over the fate of minorities in different lands. The truth is that since the end of the Cold War, governance and legitimacy in democracies have revolved around forging coalitions of minorities and detaching small sections of the majority community necessary for parliamentary majorities. The practice even had a name: multiculturalism.
In the end, it proved unsustainable. In the US, people left behind by globalisation began dying from opioid abuse, itself a product of despair. In Britain, it was not an accident that efforts to reclaim sovereignty from the European Union led to an acrimonious debate over European jurisdiction on human rights. India, too, has been caught in the maelstrom over the human rights of its minorities, even if the real issues concern its territorial coherence and pre-date the mid-20th century idea of human rights.
All that is set to change in the years ahead.
Do these trends presage anything for India? The question can be unpacked in three parts. One: Will the resurgence of nationalism cost India its friendship with key partners like the US? Two: Does Narendra Modi cruising on a wave of patriotism spell an authoritarian future for India? Three: Can the nationalist upsurge coexist with a depressed economy? These questions are best answered as trade-offs and as residues of a process of eliminating alternative scenarios that have been speculated recently.
By the time Modi came to power, the failure to fully integrate Kashmir with India had turned into a psychological barrier. This had nothing to do with democracy; it was a matter of plain political weakness
The cost to friendship, especially with the US, is more in the nature of a trade-off than an either-or switch that goes off the moment a certain nationalist threshold is crossed. It is abundantly clear that India’s leaders have made a calculation and have acted upon it. The usual frame in which India-US ties are analysed is one of a partnership based on values such as respect for democracy and liberal ideals that bind the two countries in a world where these qualities are rare. For two decades, this has enabled bipartisan support for New Delhi that has never been troubled by America’s domestic politics. From this perspective, the abrogation of Article 370 and the ‘lockdown’ in Kashmir led to considerable disquiet in the ranks of India’s supporters in the US. This reached a tipping point after the passage of the CAA in December 2019. This led to a quick transition from disappointment to dismay and now outright disapproval. This is most acute in the legislative wing of the US government where a phalanx of Congressional leaders openly desire to pressure India to reverse some of the steps it has taken.
If the trade-off has been framed in a more-or-less moralistic manner in the US, for India the calculation is materially grounded. Any reduction of American ‘strategic altruism’ towards India is potentially very risky. At the very minimum, there is a danger of losing access to key military equipment essential for the modernisation of its armed forces. But this is the very least of it: the US has for long viewed India as a potential counterweight to China and has expended some serious political capital to that end. This is something that New Delhi is acutely conscious of.
There was, however, a far more pressing domestic calculation for India. Abrogating Article 370 was essential for transitioning Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to a normal state. The prolonged existence of that vexed feature of the Constitution allowed a separatist constituency to breed in that state. By a complex psychological and political mechanism, the Article gave hope to separatists that at the very minimum there would be a deal of sorts with Pakistan allowing Kashmir some taste of ‘independence’. J&K’s political leadership was adept at using the cover provided by that constitutional feature to build political careers on foundations damaging to the Union.
Something similar was at work with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and other eastern states that have seen unprecedented demographic changes due to the influx of Bangladeshis and Rohingyas. If left unchecked, this would have imperilled India’s eastern flank within a decade. These migrants may have become ‘Indians’ by living in India but their fealty to the country is questionable. Worse, unless decisive steps are taken, the danger of insurgency reviving in Assam remains a potent threat.
The choice was stark. On the one hand, the US gives India much needed support for its external security against China, a country that, in orders of magnitude, is more powerful. The Doklam standoff was ample proof of how menacing China can become. On the other hand, not undertaking tough corrective steps would have further eroded India’s borders in dangerous and complicated ways that could not be fixed at a later date. If large chunks of territory were to become ungovernable and be effectively in a state of slow secession, external security would become a secondary concern even if it remained a pressing issue.
What can India do to fix its fraying friendship with the US? The first thing to note is that posing the question in terms of shared values is questionable in analytical terms. Values as a determinant for picking friends in the international arena is a post-Cold War fad inspired by the neoconservative idea that the internal structure of a state determines its external posture. A dictatorship is likely to be menacing to its neighbours; a democracy is unlikely to be badly behaved. Iraq under Saddam Hussein is held as an example in this respect. Historically, this is a questionable idea. During the Cold War, the US never shied away from developing friendships with dictators from Honduras to Vietnam. Were dictators decent during this period and later turned vile and violent? The idea died a painful death in the sands of Iraq. But where neoconservative ideologues held it in abeyance after their adventures in Mesopotamia, the liberals picked it up. It is now being thrown at India. A quicker re-packaging of ideas from dangerous to being the cornerstone of friendships is rare to be found in the 20th century. The interesting aspect of the charge of India being an ‘illiberal country’ is that it comes from liberals who, in 2014, proclaimed Modi to be a force for positive change. Now they view him as an unmitigated disaster for democracy in India.
This, however, should not lull India into believing that America ‘needs’ it as a bulwark against China. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the US has other options with respect to China—including the possibility of some kind of rapprochement in case a Democrat becomes President—India has none, except trying to build up its currently pitiful economic and military muscle. It needs the US to that end.
The answer to India’s quandary does not lie in corner solutions where it abandons political changes necessary for its survival or blithely assumes that it can ride the storm in the US. To be sure, many of the Congressional leaders lack an understanding of the complex realities in Kashmir and Assam. The task for Indian diplomats is to inform these politicians, again and again if necessary, about the situation and why steps like the NRC are essential. This will take time but has the potential to bear fruit. Meanwhile, there should be no retreat from an NRC re-enumeration in Assam and starting it elsewhere, consolidating changes in Kashmir, and pushing ahead with the CAA.
In the US, people left behind by globalization began dying from opioid abuse. In Britain, it was not an accident that efforts to reclaim sovereignty led to an acrimonious debate over European jurisdiction on Human Rights
In the months after the end of Article 370, with the reorganisation of J&K as a Union Territory, a number of commentators in India and abroad took to the theme that India was approaching the ‘authoritarian limit’ where a country discards civil liberties and the Government acquires powers unknown in a democracy. That the Supreme Court gave a string of judgments that went in the Government’s favour fuelled these fears.
Do these fears have a kernel of truth?
Independent India has been a democracy except for a brief period in the 1970s. Whatever powers are exercised by India’s Government are well within the limits imposed by the Constitution. What is confounding for Western observers and most Indian liberals is the rapid pace of the changes seen in 2019. From that perception to the conclusion that India is abandoning democracy is just a single step of imagination. What have changed are the political conditions that demand and enable such changes. Take the case of Kashmir. Several Indian Prime Ministers, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi, struggled to change the constitutional parameters that defined the relationship of that state with the Centre. Their efforts were unsuccessful. After that era of a strong executive, three decades elapsed during which Indian leaders were preoccupied with a number of challenges, including that of managing the insurgency in Kashmir. By the time Modi came to power, the failure to fully integrate Kashmir with India had turned into a psychological barrier that no Indian Prime Minister could overcome even if he wanted to. This had nothing to do with democracy or constitutionalism; it was a matter of plain political weakness. The power to abrogate Article 370 was provided in the Constitution itself. The fact that it could not be exercised from the time of Nehru—who knew that it was a temporary feature of the Constitution—until 2014, had to do with political circumstances and not a breaching of constitutional limits.
It has now become something of a fashion to compare Modi with Indira Gandhi. Modi, it is claimed, is modelling himself after her. The vast powers of the Prime Minister’s Office and the alleged emasculation of institutions are insinuated as parallels that foretell a ‘dark period’ for India in the times ahead. The parallel in all respects, except one, is wrong and is based on a misreading of what happened in India in the 1970s. The details of that time need not detain us but it is important to note that the 1970s were a period of acute economic stress produced by a string of crop failures and rising global oil prices that India could not cope with. The resultant mix of unchecked inflation and poor output was the reason behind the political upheaval seen during those years. In the period since 2014, these macroeconomic indicators are the exact reverse of what was seen in the 1970s. There is a glut of agricultural output, leading to a historic deflation of prices in the last six years. Inflation has remained in the sub-4 per cent range in contrast to the double-digit increases seen during Indira Gandhi’s tenure.
The result is a very different kind of politics. Indira Gandhi faced political headwinds within two years of her stupendous win in 1971. In contrast, Modi has sailed his party to an even bigger victory in his second electoral foray in 2019. There is, however, one parallel between the two periods that comes close to being exact: the inability of the opposition to compete against a popular Prime Minister. During Indira Gandhi’s term, the opposition lacked coherence and the idea of coalition politics was alien to ambitious men who wanted to dispatch the Prime Minister to oblivion. In Modi’s time, there are various sorts of mahagathbandhans—the current fashionable term for a coalition—but they are as ineffective as the opposition was in the 1970s. What undid Indira Gandhi was the acute economic distress. Modi has had his own share of economic misfortunes, ranging from the mismanaged demonetisation in 2016-2017 to the design and implementation problems in the Goods and Services Tax. Will these be sufficient to hurt him to the point that his party loses in the next Lok Sabha election?
This is the theory that kindles hope in Modi’s opponents and causes consternation among his supporters. The reality is that India’s economic performance under Modi has been mixed. Economic growth has tumbled even as some key populist measures initiated by his predecessor have continued. India’s public finances are under stress, making it hard for the Government to spend its way out of the current morass. With increased political polarisation, his opponents—backed by influential commentators in India and outside—have now begun arguing that India is no longer the next big economic bet that it seemed in 2014. This is something that Modi needs to tackle.
To draw a straight line from India’s economic woes to a possibility of major political losses for Modi is, however, too much of a stretch. Two factors will modulate any outcome that draws a link between the state of the economy and political performance. One, Modi came to power in 2014 just around the time when the world was re-nationalising after a quarter century of globalisation. That he used the opportunity to fix long-pending political problems bolstered his nationalist credentials. In contrast, the opposition viewed these steps purely as drivers of short-term politics. That has not gone down well with the Indian electorate when they take stock of national interest. Two, the danger to global trade in a world with barriers to the movement of goods, services and people is likely to limit economic opportunities for a country like India. A large part of India’s progress since 1991 is due to gains from growth in exports and the availability of cheaply produced goods abroad. When trade options recede, this will be to India’s disadvantage. India has a huge market that many small, export-dependent countries don’t have. But if this is a positive feature structurally, the uneven distribution of income ensures that economic growth through the home market will remain a challenge for the foreseeable future. Managing this complex situation will pose a challenge to Modi.
If 2019 was a year of dramatic events, 2020 is less likely to witness a repeat. The political projects essential for India’s coherence as a nation-state have been set rolling. There will be opposition to these for obvious reasons: they have severely shaken the old equilibrium which was based on just accepting whatever came India’s way. Protests in the name of secularism will continue as the influx of illegal migrants in eastern India will be resisted. It is a tragedy that these migrants are seen through the lens of religion and not as a threat to India as a body of citizens. To many, these migrants are essential if India is to remain secular. The question what will remain of India or its identity is dismissed as some imagined ‘melting pot’. In intellectual circles, it is a taboo to raise the question. But the ‘India of old’ as imagined by the country’s intellectuals is more or less a memory now.