These are testing times for anyone with a sense of proportion. The usual temptation is to defy it and say something seminal, if not dramatic. Such impulse pushes for clear points of departure in history – pre-Covid and post-Covid or, more recently and in a different sphere, the pre-Galwan and post-Galwan conflict with China. That impulse, however, is chastened by the thought of turning points when history “refused to turn”, as the historian APJ Taylor put it.
The last few weeks have seen people offering possible scenarios of the future of work, labour, business, ergonomic designs, even relationships in the grip, and aftermath, of the coronavirus pandemic. Similarly, observers of international politics have been keen on sizing up the full import of the viral tumult. As early as the third week of March, for instance, the international affairs commentator Gideon Rachman saw of the nation state as one of the key implications of the pandemic on the world order.
Rachman inferred it as a point of reversal after almost three decades of globalisation, a process for which Kenichi Ohmae’s 1990 book The Borderless World served as the defining text. One wonders how Rachman would now see Francis Fukuyama’s claims – made in his famous 1989 essay, End of History – about nationalism getting “defanged”. Significantly, the renewed centrality of the nation state, as Rachman admits, hasn’t been sudden; the pandemic only catalysed the process. It has been in making for quite some time. So much so that the journal Foreign Affairs had a special issue on New Nationalism in February 2019.
The more important question to ask now is: how much time would it take before the current understanding about the revival of the nation state outlives its validity? In a world in flux, sticking your neck out to offer broad conclusions is fraught with risks. The most obvious of those is a short shelf-life.
Closer home, there have been in seeing the impact of the pandemic on Indian politics. Commentators have been trying to see what effect it would have on the dominant position of the Narendra Modi government and its policy directions. The task of crisis management is seen as the most serious governance challenge for the government, a departure from the pursuit of some of its core political objectives last year. Hence, there is a sense that the way it tackles the pandemic would define whether it grabbed it as an opportunity or let the opposition corner it. Despite its patent validity, such understanding misses two important points.
First, the state of the opposition today vis-a-vis the idea of Modi, rather than Modi himself. Barely a year ago, the Lok Sabha election results revealed something crucial about the popular perception of India’s national leadership. The problem for the opposition was that the anti-idea to Modi was Modi himself.
A decisive section of the voters – far more in some states and far less in others – was convinced that even for correcting the flaws and failures of his government, Modi was the more effective choice than the opposition. It effectively meant that a large section of the electorate preferred Modi to a rudderless opposition, which was showing signs of being a ragtag formation. Because he was seen as the idea as well as the anti-idea of himself, Modi succeeded in neutralising the failures of his first term and disappointments of his core supporters too. In short, it was a reward for carrying political capital.
A year can be a long time in politics but that hasn’t let the opposition make a serious dent in the political capital of the prime minister. The reason remains the same: at the national level, the opposition is far from being seen as a potent cure for the flaws of the Modi regime. In matters of governance thrown up by pandemic – inadequacy of health infrastructure, migrant worker crisis, the plight of the jobless poor – the opposition’s critical scrutiny of the central government isn’t inspiring the promise of a better performance in its place. The moment it succeeds in doing so, the going can get tough for the Modi government in the remaining four years of its term. As of now, there isn’t anything to suggest the opposition is advancing on the perception turf.
It’s a turf where the Modi regime has an edge in the perception battle over its response to the aggressive moves by China in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh. The government’s resounding electoral success in the wake of its response to the Pulwama terror attack only bolsters its self-image of being tough on matters of national security. Given the popular perceptions about infirmities and wavering response to such threats by the previous Congress-led governments, the Modi government was seen as more firmly equipped to respond. With political communication and a long drawn electoral campaign, it ensured that its response was seen as such. It built on a perception that had grown over the years owing to the nationalistic pitch to which the Modi government had directed its policy outlook.
Faced with a hostile China, which brings power asymmetry and a visible rogue turn to its hegemonic designs, the recalibration of India’s strategy can’t be limited to a reactive one. The Modi government and the defence top brass are expected to be conscious of it. The fact remains that despite gaps in power parity, India is militarily big enough to not become a pushover for any power. However, there’s a need to gear up for a longer strategic contest, and a multi-pronged response to the Chinese hostility seems the way ahead for the government. The coming months are crucial for firming up the political will for such a response.
Second, whether it’s the pandemic or Chinese hostility, the popular attitudes to crises in the country have generally seen a decoupling from expected political costs for the incumbent. This has been especially visible at the second layer of the federal set up – state governments – where calamities like floods haven’t brought in questions of response-audit of the government. A degree of acceptance of the inevitability of the rough edges of the crisis has so far let many governments go unhurt. However, the question remains whether the same attitude would be seen towards an unprecedented and long lockdown which has had a more widespread and direct bearing on the livelihoods and living conditions of millions of people. There isn’t any comprehensive measure of the popular response to this question. In the absence of it, the polity would settle for electoral verdicts in the next few months to gauge how people made sense of the suffering.
One can’t be sure how the historical process would place these developments on its larger canvas. Early in the third decade of the 21st century, they could be specks, mere dots or landmarks in the inexorable scheme of time. Whatever they prove to be, holding one’s horses seems a better option than sticking one’s neck out.
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