The image of a darkening world which haunted 2019 continues, even as 2020 commences. Together with increased turbulence, what is evident is that the world is regressing in several directions. Democracy and democratic freedoms are coming under increasing attack accompanied by a retreat from liberalism and globalisation. This is not limited to any one country or a group of countries, but is evident across much of the world.
Geopolitical fault-lines widened in 2019. America’s leadership of the world came under increasing threat from countries such as China. The future of the United Kingdom, under the shadow of Brexit, remained unclear. Europe seemed to be in eclipse. Latin and Central America were in turmoil. In Asia, Afghanistan appeared to be at a crossroads in its history. Instability plagued Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt. Civil war conditions prevailed in many regions. Violent protests raged in many domains, including Hong Kong, once a symbol of “One Country Two Systems”. Existing threats to the security of nations remained unchanged, even as offensive cyber-attacks became the new weapon of choice in many situations.
As 2020 progresses, the spectre that haunts nations is, if anything, bleaker. Geopolitically, it would be tempting to assert that this is perhaps the most troubled time in recent history, given the looming spectre of an all-out war between Iran and the United States. Exertion of “maximum pressure” by the U.S. to minimise Iran’s influence and reduce its support to proxies in the region and elsewhere, combined with Iran’s only slightly less provocative posture as seen towards the end of 2019, had resulted in a major stand-off by the beginning of 2020. Following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s top Generals and Commander of its Qods Force, and several of his associates, in a U.S.-directed air strike in the vicinity of Baghdad Airport, the extent of fury in Iran and Iraq, and to a large extent across the entire Muslim world, has been intense. This has put both the region and the world in grave jeopardy.
From a national perspective, 2019 posited at best, a mixed bag. Political tensions had intensified in the first half of the year in view of the General Elections held in April-May, and against the backdrop of victories of Opposition parties in the Assembly Elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh towards the end of 2018. Acrimony over allegations of corruption, especially over the Rafale fighter aircraft deal, had further vitiated the political atmosphere.
Well before this, in February 2019, a relative calm that had existed on the terror front since November 2008 — though in the intervening years, terror attacks of a lesser magnitude had taken place — – had been shattered when a suicide bomber (owing allegiance to Pakistan’s Jaish-e-Mohammed), carried out a massive explosive attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in Pulwama, killing 44 personnel. In retaliation, India carried out an aerial strike on a JeM training camp in Balakot, inside Pakistan, causing unspecified damage, the first time since 1971 that India had used air power to attack targets inside Pakistan. It briefly raised the spectre of a direct confrontation with Pakistan.
In the second half of 2019, the Government embarked on two controversial pieces of legislation. In August 2019, Parliament diluted Article 370 of the Constitution, and carved out two Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh from the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir. This was accompanied by a massive clampdown, including a communication blackout, and the arrest of almost the entire top leadership of the political establishment in J&K; this included three former Chief Ministers. Violence following this move was seen to be limited, but the mood remained sullen.
In the final weeks of 2019, the Government initiated another controversial move to push through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which is implicitly seen as linked to a National Register of Citizens, though the Government (after having indicated at one point about such linkage) has since declared that this is not the case. It provoked widespread protests on the ground that the legislation violated some of the basic precepts of the Constitution, and applied the test of religion, to exclude (Muslim) refugees from neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, from being given Indian citizenship.
As 2020 commences, India’s foreign policy challenges remain very considerable. India-Pakistan relations remain frozen, even as Pakistan continues to make overtures to the U.S., and further cements its relationship with China at one level and Saudi Arabia at another. Sino-Indian relations continue to be riddled with numerous problems. The vexed Sino-Indian border dispute remains in deep freeze. China, meanwhile, has embarked more aggressively on establishing its leadership across Asia; in the shadow play for influence across parts of Asia, including South Asia, China seems to be gaining at India’s expense.
India’s attempts at creating a supportive environment in its immediate neighbourhood in 2020 remains equally challenging. While relations with the Maldives improved during the past year, the advent of a new Government in Sri Lanka, headed by the Rajapaksas, does not augur too well for India. Relations with Bangladesh appear satisfactory on the surface, but underlying strains are emerging. Relations with the United Arab Emirates are better than at any time previously, but the India-Saudi Arabia relationship can at best be termed uncertain. Relations with Iran are likely to become highly problematic, in view of India’s “tilt” towards the U.S., and the open hostility on display currently between Iran and the U.S.
On the domestic front, India again will need to find solutions to quite a few thorny problems. Removing tight controls in J&K and restoring civil liberties there, including the release of senior political leaders, will require very deft handling, given the “pressure cooker” atmosphere that prevails. India will also need to watch out for a very different type of agitation in J&K, something between “civil disobedience” and an “intifada type” struggle.
While India appears reasonably well-positioned to deal with some of the other internal threats, including insurgencies in the North-east, Naxalite violence, and the “terror imperative”, the fallout of protests over the CAA has the potential to become India’s most serious threat in decades. Already, it is aggravating the fault-lines in society and this could become the harbinger of a highly divisive period in India’s recent history.
Already, the eddies of controversy over this and other disparate issues are beginning to coalesce into a major maelstrom of protests, with India’s youth, including many belonging to universities and higher institutes of learning, up in arms on manifold issues. At present these seem to have little in common, excepting opposition to those in authority for the latter’s perceived insensitivity to public protests. When assaults on students of Jamia Milia University or Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi become a common platform of protest for students across the nation, it, however, marks a significant shift in public opinion. Perceived insensitivity by those in authority to such protests, and misguided attempts to polarise opinion in these circumstances can prove to be short sighted.
Managing the economy
Furthermore, given the current economic malaise facing the country, which can hardly be treated as a cyclical phenomenon, the economic portents for 2020 also do not look too good. For several months now, the country has witnessed the slowing down of the economy and India’s growth story appears set to lose much of its shine. A sustained below 5% GDP growth could become a recipe for disaster. Already, India is being mentioned as among 2020’s top geopolitical risks.
Given the total impact of the various aspects, those in charge would do well to be aware of and prepare for the major problems that lie ahead. The digital revolution that is under way and the awesome power of Artificial Intelligence, Machine-Learning, Quantum Computing and Bio-Technology may not be enough in the circumstances.
M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal