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PM Modi’s difficult choices between Covid-19, strategic positioning, domestic sectarian violence and diplomatic relations
At the beginning of June of this year, India is experiencing the fastest expansion of Covid-19 infections in the world. Within one week, the numbers have brought the country globally from the eleventh to the seventh rank, and the numbers continue to grow faster than anywhere else. Add to the scaring figures the fact that due to the sub-standard infrastructure of the country huge numbers of infected people and of the dead will never be recorded. In addition, the general shut-down of the country, which was meant to contain the spread of the Corona virus, has triggered mass movements of people, which will increase the number of infections even more. People will get sick and will die of the Corona virus without authorities being able to register the true figures properly. In India, statistics will therefore remain far behind the reality for long. India is, thus, set to become the stage of an unparalleled humanitarian disaster without the world knowing exactly. At the same time, China, where the pandemic started some six months ago, claims to have completely halted the spread of the virus, is making donations of medical supply to other countries, visibly as part of an image campaign, and even tries to lecture the world about the right measures against the virus.
The health crisis has triggered a social and economic crisis, which hits with particular severity the hotspots of the pandemic like Europe, North America and Brazil. The costs involved with the crisis management, regardless of what strategies and policies governments have chosen against the spread of the pandemic, will heavily impact state budgets everywhere. State finances all over the world will look different after the pandemic.
Like in other countries, the Indian government, too, had to launch emergency programs in order to mitigate the damage done to the people and the economy, and Prime Minister Modi’s Union Budget is being dramatically affected. Substantial budget cuts have been ordered for 83 government ministries and departments in order to save the budget allocations to the 18 most vital ministries and departments at the forefront of the Covid-19 battle. Among ministries with the heaviest budget cuts is the Ministry of Defense (MoD). Bearing in mind that the largest budget share of Defense pays for salaries and pensions and cannot be reduced, finances allocated to procurement plans and modernization requirements for the armed forces will be most heavily affected. This will obviously impact India’s capacity to compete with the ongoing military surge of the Asian superpower China and to satisfy expectations of the USA, whose strategic partnership has become a central element in India’s geopolitical positioning.
In his international outreach over his total premiership, Modi may have, so far, played India’s strategic cards well, but the growing lack of the underlying military substance necessary for successfully competing with the big powers of the region, will push back his ambitions. The fight against Covid-19 will turn out to be India’s major impediment in ascertaining its regional role, let alone its geopolitical relevance.
With regard to India’s central security concern, its relationship with China, its neighbor at the Northern border, recent developments reveal how relevant military means are for the protection and promotion of strategic interests. While the boundaries between China and India are the world’s longest disputed land border, the two neighbors have been observing a sort of “cease-fire” along that border since 1988. Occasional frontline skirmishes over three decades may have reminded the world that the Sino-Indian land border in the Himalayans was still an unresolved dispute, but the absence of open conflict was a reflection of the strategic fact that in 1988 the two giants were economically and militarily almost equals. Since then, reforms in both countries, starting earlier in China, have triggered economic growth, which has raised both countries’ position in the world. But that growth, though impressive for both, followed uneven dynamics and have resulted in a relative decline of India compared to China. Today, China is economically five times stronger than India, and militarily four times stronger.
China’s increased military potential generated a strategic outreach, new claims of sovereignty over international waters, especially in the South China Sea, and aspirations to dominate larger areas of open sea elsewhere, e.g. for the protection of its trade routes in the Indian Ocean. China is developing the transport and infrastructure network of its Belt and Road Initiative through India’s neighbors Pakistan, Myanmar/Burma and Sri Lanka and exerts more and more control of the Indian Ocean. India must ask itself whether the Indian Ocean is still “Indian”. In order to prevent China from hijacking the Indian Ocean, as it is doing with the South China Sea, India should prioritize the modernization of its naval forces. Instead, modernization and acquisition projects have been dramatically cut down; Indian naval forces are among the first victims of budgetary cuts imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The land forces deployed along the borders with China and with Pakistan are similarly hit by necessary cuts. This is particularly hurting Modi’s policy of striking back more forcefully in Kashmir along the Line-of-Control (LoC). The LoC is the factual border between India and Pakistan and is the conflict-ridden frontline towards India’s Muslim neighbor and its trauma since Partition of 1947.
For reasons unknown to the outside world, Modi’s main political focus has completely turned to India’s Muslims, the obsession of his core electorate, the Hindu nationalists. Instead of fulfilling his promises of economic reforms and growth, Modi has chosen to harass and even illegally persecute the country’s Muslim minority (of 200 million!). His anti-Muslim obsession has become the hallmark of his government’s policies, an ugly hallmark. In an historic perspective, this development is absurd: Never in its history has the subcontinent been territorially more widely united before the peak of British India rule than under the rule of the Great Moghuls. That was a Muslim empire. Never was India’s cultural radiation more glorious than during that time. Today, Indian Muslims are losing their constitutional guarantees of equality and are becoming second class citizens. The Covid-19 pandemic and the Government’s policies to contain the pandemic are adding to the Muslims’ hardship and, by moments, turn them even into scape-goats of the catastrophe.
After having successfully developed diplomatic and economic ties with all sides in the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf region, Modi puts his diplomatic successes at risk. His domestic policies against his own Muslim population have provoked expressions of dissatisfaction and concern in different Muslim countries of the region and beyond, from across the Islamic world. Modi’s domestic choices are even more amazing and damaging when keeping in mind that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become the fourth- and third-largest trading partners and Foreign Direct Investment from these countries are also growing in India. Promising economic ties have even had as consequence that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have toned down their critical rhetoric against India’s Kashmir policies and are prioritizing their investments in India against their traditional ties with Pakistan. All this is being jeopardized by Modi’s anti-Muslim obsession.
This is today’s picture of India’s Government: Promoting irrational obsessions, choosing contradictory policies, finding itself at a loss in front of real challenges and overall losing out in geopolitics.
2nd June 2020 / Philippe Welti