A chain is as strong as its weakest link. The quadrilateral security dialogue process brings together Japan, Australia, India and the United States as an informal group of democracies to cooperate around the vast and critical Indo-Pacific maritime space.
India has always been the weakest link in the chain. Its massive armed forces equipped with nuclear weapons are a bulwark against China’s far superior military might. Yet it is a very poor country with a per capita income of only 3% to 5% of the other three; a weak state with limited capacity to govern over a billion people; and a soft state without the political will to make and implement tough decisions.
The second wave of COVID-19 in April and May is India’s greatest national tragedy and international embarrassment since partition in 1947. The national and world press has covered this in detail (more than they would in their own). own country), with images of people panting to death in the streets, bodies piled up awaiting the last rites and cremation, and masses of corpses floating in the Ganges, many of which had washed up on its banks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s carefully cultivated bubble of competence has been shattered by the open display of mass incompetence.
In the wake of this brutal and sinister reminder of its multiple pathologies and weaknesses, the question must be asked: from what point would India become a handicap rather than an asset for the other “Quad” partners? The question is important because the other three are linked together in formal alliances by security treaties and India is not, showing less commitment.
The excitement, expectations and hopes of the Modi government in 2014, with promises of “minimum government, maximum governance” and “sabka sath, sabka viswas, sabka vikash”(With all, with the confidence of all, development for all), are memories that fade away. On June 1, the official number of COVID-19 deaths per million in India was 238 compared to the global average of 457, the United States at 1,832, the United Kingdom at 1,873 and Brazil at 2 163.
The crux of the matter is therefore not the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19, but the lack of adequate public health infrastructure and the availability of medical supplies, equipment and drugs. India is a sobering reminder of why a strong economy is not an optional luxury but a prerequisite for good health.
Modi’s neglect of urgent economic and governance reforms in addition to the demands of a good public health infrastructure – choosing instead to go into semi-permanent campaign mode in every state election and focusing on a Hindu nationalist agenda – has further exacerbated the misery of COVID-19.
The health of people is vitally dependent on a healthy economy that empowers government to create an effective, universally accessible public health system. No country gets better health outcomes from getting poorer.
The pandemic, for its part, accelerated an economic decline that had already started. According to World Bank figures, India’s annual GDP growth increased from 8.3% in 2016 to 4.2% in 2019. It contracted by 7.3% in 2020-2021 and GDP forecasts for 2021 have been revised down by around 17%, the worst among G20 countries. .
India has seen the worst of both worlds: a shattered economy and a massive COVID-19 toll that peaked in May, with the official tally recording nearly 400,000 new cases daily and more than 4,000 new deaths daily. The recovery will be long-drawn, both on the disease front and on the economic front.
The continuing legal battle with Vodafone over retrospective tax claims has eroded investor confidence. The goods and services tax suffered from design flaws and was poorly enforced. The voodoo economy of demonetization was a disaster. And withdrawing into itself by rejecting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership signaled a lack of confidence in India’s competitiveness.
Slogans and sycophantic squads can neither mask nor compensate for these pathologies. India went from being the major economy to the fastest growing in the world when Modi took over, to the fastest shrinking.
The nation’s democratic credentials are also eroding, as shown by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index surveys, the US Freedom House report and the Swedish Varieties of Democracy project.
The methodological flaws in any report can be called into question, but the main trends converge in a compelling setback tale of democratic institutions, practices, and discourse. Domestic unity was also strained by injecting the poison of religious tensions into what had been a remarkably stable set of live-and-let arrangements for decades.
In a provocative 2009 article, Lant Pritchett, then at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, described India as a “troubled state.” Using examples from health, education and driver’s licenses, he said the ‘head’ of decision-making was disconnected from the ‘arms and legs’ of implementation and the state struggled helplessly with the highest malnutrition rate in the world, vaccination rates lower than African countries and child mortality worse than in Bangladesh. Confused, chaotic, shaken by pain and tossed about helplessly – Pritchett accurately foreshadowed the coronavirus experience in India.
COVID-19 has brutally exposed the emptiness of India’s claims to power, status and influence and boasts of being a vaccine superpower and pharmacy to the world.
The virtual Quad summit in March already seems like a distant dream. Echoing its birth amid the humanitarian crisis of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, the four leaders agreed to partner in the production and distribution of “safe, accessible and effective vaccines” in collaboration with the ‘World Health Organization.
India is committed to accelerating and expanding the production of American vaccines; Japan has pledged to provide financial assistance; the United States has pledged to put its scientific and technological shoulder at the service of the collective effort, and Australia has said it will logistically assist with distribution in Southeast Asia.
After seven years of uncontrolled exercises of power, the Modi government cannot credibly blame predecessors or foreign troublemakers for the grim situation. Sadly, India’s biggest indictment is the lack of a viable national alternative to the ruling Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party.
The Congress Party is the only other national opposition group, but the only glue that holds it together is the Gandhi family. Far from inspiring people and giving them hope for the future, this sad reality fills them with despair. Congress also cannot match the BJP’s fundraising, organizing and public communication skills.
However, if by some miracle, the exogenous shock of COVID-19 shatters the pride and arrogance of the government, encourages it to undertake the economic and governance reforms it urgently needs, shifts it to a more political posture. accommodating and pluralistic at home and greater openness to free trade, its attractiveness as a Quad partner will grow. Don’t hold your breath for this triumph of hope over experience.
Ramesh Thakur is Professor Emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
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