India Fights Through Challenges

 2021 has not been one of those years whose memory we will cherish in times to come. But it has definitely been a year when India fought back hard, be it on our northern border or against a virulent virus

When 2021 began, there was naturally no way of knowing how it would go. We had already had a bad year in terms of the economy and public health. So, we had no choice but to be optimistic. We had carried forward three major issues from the previous year. One was the farmers protest (and thank God it is showing signs of coming to an end though after a spree of violence and unrest).
It seems the second issue of the India-China conflict is not going to end very soon. There was some progress in terms of bilateral talks and army disengagement in a few places. But, unfortunately, many of the soldiers from both sides will have to spend another winter on the Himalayan peaks.
The last one, i.e. the pandemic, is all set to go into another year. However, we do have some success on this front, despite a terrible second wave. The post-second wave vaccination drive and the success of home-grown vaccines definitely give us some reason to keep our spirits high.
Scheduled international air travel is expected to resume soon after a long pause of more than 18 months. What is more, the Indian economy has finally started showing signs of revival.
Even though cricket lovers have been disappointed by India’s performance in the T-20 World Cup, our athletes have done us proud in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
On the international front, the exit of the United States from Afghanistan will make us remember this year for long. Now it remains to be seen how India handles the resurgence of the Taliban.
As expected, the strategic partnership of the Joe Biden-led US government with India is moving ahead well as seen during the Indo-Pacific QUAD and the recently organised West Asian QUAD. This year India led the BRICS summit and also made a strong mark in the climate change conference, COP26.
2021 has definitely not been one of those years whose memory we will cherish in times to come. However, at the end, we have become stronger, our future looks much brighter than it did in the middle of last year and we are ready for the next challenges.
Here is a close look at the 12 defining developments of 2021, in the Indian context:

New US President: What does the electoral victory of Joe Biden mean for India?

In this age of globalisation, it is very hard to completely isolate oneself and equally hard not having India as part of the equation in world affairs. So, the arrival of the Democrats or, specifically, the Biden-Harris duo at the helm in the US has significant implications for the world’s two vibrant democracies.

Bilateral ties have improved, especially since fall last year, perhaps largely due to Covid. The US needs India’s presence in the subcontinent more than ever, at least as long as they are keeping an eye on China. Biden’s approach has not altered in that respect. However, India expected a better response from the US during the terrible Covid second wave. America’s response was too little and too late. The embargo on raw material exports from the US not only hampered vaccine production in India, it had a direct impact on the bilateral relationship. The Biden administration now has an opportunity to improve ties.
India needed a surface-to-air missile defence system, and the Russian S-400 proved to be the best so New Delhi procured it despite US objections. Now the least the Biden administration can do is not threaten India with sanctions. Friends do not bully each other.

Disastrous second wave

The less we talk about this period the better. Readers who lost loved ones at that time would definitely not want their painful memories revived. But we have a collective responsibility as well and that is to prevent such catastrophes in future. Many things went wrong. Too few vaccinations and an inadequate medical infrastructure proved to be lethal for India. We started celebrating success regarding the first wave too soon.

Politicians, irrespective of party, caste, creed, religion, ideology or, rather, lack of it, showed an extreme level of irresponsible behaviour. The masses were no better. We all forgot that we were in the midst of a pandemic. Listening to the scientists and doctors became passé. Quacks-turned-high priests developed bigger fan followings than qualified medical practitioners.
So, that disaster was just waiting to happen. The initial response to the crisis was equally lacking. In fact, it was terrible. Unfortunately, blaming either the Centre or the states for not having enough oxygen supplies became a bigger issue for the future of our electoral democracy than actually arranging for the oxygen. By the end of May, officially 27 million were infected and more than 300,000 people had died. Unofficial estimates were much higher. Bodies floating in the Ganga became a national shame. Now, thankfully, all that is past. But the important point is what we have learnt from it.

Fight back with vaccines

The person who wins a big battle is generally not the one who never lost one before, but, rather, the one who learnt from past defeats. We Indians should take pride in the fact that we did learn; our governments, both at the Centre and in the states, also learned. After the disastrous second wave, governments took the right decision to proceed with the vaccination drive on a war footing.

India had just over 68 million doses administered by April 1, but took this figure to a staggering 1.21 billion by November 26. Indeed, it is a big achievement, but we should not get carried away by it. We should remember that still just 31.3 percent of the population is fully vaccinated (both doses).
India took the right step in researching and manufacturing our homegrown Covid vaccine, Covaxin, and setting up a large manufacturing plant for the Oxford-AstraZeneca formulation, Covishield.
India was already a world leader in vaccine manufacturing; the Covid crisis showed the world that the country is also capable of cutting-edge medical research.
And, how can we ignore the diplomatic advantage that comes with it? Can we forget the ‘thank you’ note with the image of Hanuman from the Brazilian President in January 2021? The World Health Organisation (WHO) also approved Covaxin in November – which has shut up many naysayers in India and reminded us that politics should always take a backseat when the nation is in crisis.

Return of the Taliban

After Covid, the other incident that rattled the world was the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The US withdrawal from war-ravaged Afghanistan was part of their plan to move focus to their newfound interest in the Indo-Pacific region. The Quadrilateral Dialogue (QUAD) and the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) are new American strategic directions.

The West may not consider Afghanistan or Pakistan immediate threats, but India cannot afford to do that. Under the previous Taliban regime in the 1990s, we witnessed the hijacking of IC-814 and the ugly drama that unfolded in Kandahar. We spent billions of dollars and our own resources to rebuild Afghanistan post-9/11. The country cannot let all the strategic assets built during the last two decades go in vain.
India never had a military presence in Afghanistan and was never as active as the US, Soviet Union and Pakistan in this war-torn nation. Now Pakistan will try its best to use the Taliban in anti-India operations. We definitely do not want to get into an imbroglio between the West and possibly a group involving Pakistan, China and Russia, using Afghanistan as a buffer zone. Only time will tell how India’s diplomacy with China and Russia will fend off Pakistan’s machinations of using the Taliban against us.

West Asian QUAD

Last year Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the US came together to form a collective agreement known as the Abraham Accords. No doubt it was a milestone achievement for these three nations and we understand the significance of the term ‘Abraham’ here.

In October this year, the three nations were joined by India in a virtual conference of foreign ministers who shared some common concerns and goals. Though not official, it is now termed the West Asian QUAD, like the Indo-Pacific QUAD involving India, Japan, Australia and the United States.
These four nations agreed to establish economic cooperation and focus on infrastructure, transport and maritime security. Chinese investment in West Asia has increased manifold during the last decade and that makes the US nervous. We can clearly get their perspective. But India has to tread a cautious path here. We had a strategic relationship with Iran in this region. We should not jeopardise that just because two countries in this new ‘QUAD’ have known issues with Iran.
There have to be strong and direct benefits for India before we readjust our trajectory. We cannot be there just as a counterweight to China in American priorities. Again, the future will specify what we are gaining from these new alignments.

India leads the BRICS summit

The 13th BRICS summit took place on September 9 with India hosting the event. India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, chaired it, backed by the presence of President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, President Xi Jinping of China, and President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa.

The summit held immense significance as we see that both India and China are deeply committed to it despite rivalry and recent military conflict between them. Such forums encourage participating nations to avoid disputes and progress through a consensus-based consultative process.
Multiple initiatives have been taken up by this forum that include the Counter-Terrorism Action Plan, an agreement on cooperation in the field of remote-sensing satellites, green tourism, and others.
BRICS leaders discussed the recent developments in Afghanistan and all BRICS partners agreed to accelerate implementation of the BRICS action plan on counter-terrorism. Modi highlighted the important role that these nations could play in post-Covid global recovery. He emphasised enhancing speed and accessibility of vaccination, diversifying pharma and vaccine production capacities beyond the developed world, and promoting sustainable development by articulating a common BRICS voice on environmental and climate issues.
Can the event be construed as a diplomatic victory for India? We may know soon.

Yet another Himalayan winter: India-China dispute

The ongoing India-China conflict that commenced with skirmishes around Pangong lake in Ladakh on May 5, 2020, is set to enter 2022 with no signs of light at the end of the tunnel though with some silver lining to the cloud. Both nations have held multiple talks at various levels to end the dispute. These talks brought some progress this year as both sides agreed to disengage in August from the Gogra region.
Troops have moved to the original position of April 2020. Before that, in February this year, both nations pulled back their forces from the Pangong lake region.

But the conflict is far from over. Both armies are still face-to-face at multiple points along the 3,488-km border. Even in October this year, soldiers of both sides were caught ina tense face-off in the disputed Yangtse region of Arunachal Pradesh.
A few weeks before that, Chinese troops crossed the LAC (Line of Actual Control) in Uttarakhand. Unfortunately, we are entering another winter with the India-China dispute lingering on. China needs to look beyond the unsolved disputes around a physical border. It is time for these two ancient civilisations (in fact, the Indian and Chinese civilisations are the only two continuing and ‘living’ civilisations since ancient times) and modern nations, who are also now two emerging powers on the global economic map, to understand that this conflict will not achieve anything for either of them.

Signs of economic revival

After a terrible year because of Covid and the ensuing lockdowns in 2020, the Indian economy has begun bouncing back. However, though it is true that Covid has had a major adverse impact on our economy, we also need to be truthful to ourselves. India’s economy never looked promising since 2011. The GDP growth rate fell to 5.24 percent in FY12 and mostly remained subdued. It went above the 8 percent mark only in FY17. Then it again kept on sliding for three subsequent years – 6.8 percent, 6.5 percent and then a paltry 4 percent in FY20. It seems we have gone past the worst phase.

Unless some Covid strains or some other unexpected factors work against us, we should be able to run fast this time. Financial institutes like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have already raised their forecasts
Goldman Sachs expects India to grow at 8.5 percent in FY22 and as per their macro outlook 2022, India should hit the 9.1 percent mark in the calendar year 2022. Other institutes like the Reserve Bank of India, SBI Research, and UBS Securities already expect India to grow by over 9 percent in FY22. The New York-based institute, Jefferies Financial Group, has forecast that India is about to see a growth phase similar to the one during the 2003-10 period. Substantial reduction in bank NPAs, rise in corporate profitability, rising demand in the construction and housing sector are among other key factors that are mentioned as drivers of economic growth in the country. We hope to see a return of the ‘India Shining’ phase soon.

Looking forward to a greener future

This year Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed that India will reach carbon net-zero emissions by 2070 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly referred to as COP26, which was held in Glasgow, Scotland.

At present, India is the world’s fourth largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter after China, the United States and the European Union. As per the latest data from Climate Watch, India emits 7.1 percent of total global emissions while China and the US emit 26 percent and 12.7 percent, respectively. The per capita emission is much lower for China and India, especially India, as compared to other industrialised nations. An average Indian emits 1.96 tonnes of GHG whereas an average US person emits 16.56 tonnes of GHG. Countries like India need to consume energy increasingly to grow the economy and pull millions of people out of poverty. The PM made the point that the West became industrialised on fossil fuels while Asian and African nations were simultaneously exploited.
He mentioned, while accepting the emission targets, that the western nations should take the lead and share the bulk of the responsibilities. Apart from the net-zero target, India has promised to increase the share of renewable energy to 50 percent of total production by 2030. India will reduce 1 billion tonnes of carbon emissions in the same time period.

Revival of travel and tourism

Finally, the travel and tourism industries in India have started looking ahead. More than one-and-a-half years of disruptions have caused severe damage to this sector. As per a study conducted by the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization, global tourist traffic reduced by 83 percent in the first quarter of 2021. The Asia-Pacific region was hit by a staggering 94 percent.

A plethora of hotels and restaurants in India have been shut down permanently. But at last, with good vaccination coverage, coupled with lower probability of a serious third wave, a breather has been provided to this segment.
Hotel occupancy and average room rates (ARR) in India have started picking up. As business activities have resumed, business related air travel has also started showing positive trends. The government has been considering re-starting scheduled international flights for some time. Already cargo flights and commercial passenger flights that fall under air-bubble arrangements with destination countries have been resumed.
As of now, all scheduled flights need to abide by the protocol specified by the Union health ministry.

Repeal of farm laws

Besides the second wave of Covid, perhaps no other incident gave India as much negative publicity as the year-long farmer protest. It is sad that a reform effort had to be stalled this way. The Central government made multiple mistakes last year regarding the farm laws. The biggest one was bringing in these three laws through ordinance.

From the very beginning, farmers of Punjab and Haryana had serious issues with the proposed farm laws. The Akali Dal left the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) because of that. The Singhu and Ghazipur borders of Delhi became the flash points. It would be a lie to say the government did not try to negotiate and find middle ground. But soon it began to lose grip over the situation.
The Lakhimpur incident dealt the final blow to the government’s image. When persons associated with the ruling party are accused of mowing down protesters with their car, it becomes evident that the government is going to lose space for maneuverability. Soon after, the PM announced the repealing of the farm laws. At the end, the ruling party may have received a setback, the farmers may think that they have won, the opposition may have declared victory, but the real loser is perhaps India. Because we need farm reforms urgently to give our agriculture sector much-needed impetus.

This article was first published as cover story in

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