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Admin 2020-01-29

29 Jan 2020: The Hindu Editorial Analysis

1) The Continuing Theme of Uncertainty, Volatility


  • CONTEXT: In 2020, India needs to gear up to face thorny problems on the internal, geopolitical and economic fronts.

 

  • DEVIATIONS ACROSS THE WORLD: 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.

 

  • GLOBAL RUPTURES: 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. E.g. Venezuela's economic collapse explode into the most severe migration crisis in the region's history.
  • 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.

  • USA-IRAN HOSTILITY: 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 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, 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.

 

  • DOMESTIC TENSIONS: From a national perspective, 2019 posited at best, a mixed bag:
  • General Elections held in April-May heightened political tensions. esp against the backdrop of victories of Opposition parties in the Assembly Elections in three states towards the end of 2018.
  • Acrimony over allegations of corruption, especially over the Rafale fighter aircraft deal, had further vitiated the political atmosphere.
  • In February 2019, a suicide bomber 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.
  • It briefly raised the spectre of a direct confrontation with Pakistan.
  • In the second half of 2019, Parliament diluted Article 370 of the Constitution, and carved out two Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh.
  • 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.
  • In the final weeks of 2019, the Government introduced Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which is implicitly seen as linked to a National Register of Citizens, though the Government 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.

 

  • NEIGHBOURHOOD TIES: 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.

 

  • ISSUES WITHIN: 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(signal/indicator) of a highly divisive period in India’s recent history.
  • Already, the eddies(whirlpool or turmoil) of controversy over this and other disparate issues are beginning to coalesce(unite) into a major maelstrom(disturbance) 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.

 

  • CONCLUSION: 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.

 

2) Decisions Are Made Based On a Convergence Of Interests


  • CONTEXT: The ongoing protests against issues linked to citizenship are serious and the government has to find a way to reassure the protesters.
  • But it is too much of a stretch to say that the demonstrations will hurt India’s foreign policy interests.
  • The international order envisaged in the UN Charter is based on sovereignty, and interfering in the internal affairs of other nations is specifically prohibited.

 

  • COLD WAR ERA: During the Cold War, human rights issues were used selectively to discredit governments, but even apartheid South Africa was not isolated fully.
  • Similarly, the Non-Aligned Movement was composed of several countries ruled by dictators who oppressed their people.
  • India took pride in siding with them on the plea that internal policies had nothing to do with non-aligned solidarity and fight against imperialism and colonialism.
  • The only time New Delhi opposed a country from re-joining NAM on grounds of repression was in 1991 when the Burmese military regime imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi after she had won the elections.
  • But the country quickly changed its stand, recognised the regime and began dealing with it to protect its national interests.

  • THE POLITICS OF HUMAN RIGHTS: Even after the Cold War, countries were singled out for criticism on political grounds:
  • While Cuba, for instance, was dragged over the coals citing human rights violations, China escaped action by resorting to gimmicks like ‘no action motions’
  • India generally refrained from condemning individual nations for alleged violations of human rights and, at one stage, even declared that it will not support any resolution against individual countries if it was not a consensus resolution.
  • The U.S. agitated once, in 2003, about Libya becoming the chair of the Human Rights Commission and suggested that countries guilty of human rights violations should be expelled from such bodies.
  • It even started a move to prescribe the criteria for membership of such organisations. But Washington found the outcome of the long negotiations so unsatisfactory that it had to vote against its own resolution.
  • Recent protests in democracies like France have not resulted in Paris losing friends abroad.
  • Similarly, no country has abandoned China on account of the unrest in Hong Kong.
  • India has been silent during such protests and has continued its diplomatic engagement with these countries.
  • If absence of internal dissent or existence of democratic institutions are considered the criteria for engagement, Russia and China will not be able to have any strategic partnership.
  • During the golden era of Indo-Soviet relations, India had proclaimed that it was an ideal relationship between countries with different political systems.

 

  • BEING OPEN TO CRITICISM: On the other hand, strategic partnerships and cordial relations with other governments do not preclude(prevent from happening) criticism of a country’s internal developments.
  • Reporting on the treatment of minorities in different countries is a task assigned to agencies like the “U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom” and these organisations carry out their work even when bilateral ties are at their best.
  • In certain cases, U.S. Congress even moves resolutions to reduce aid to countries. The annual Burton Amendment in Congress was a sword of Damocles hanging over India during the Khalistan movement. India had to invest heavily in lobbying to defeat the Burton Amendment.
  • Further, even when controversial remarks, like those on religious freedom by President Barack Obama during his India visit in 2015, led to a bad taste in the mouth, India took such criticism in its stride and built bilateral relationship on the basis of mutuality of interests.
  • Independent nations take action on bilateral and multilateral ties on merits, even if decisions by other governments lead to internal protests.

 

  • CONCLUSION: A country’s own Constitution is the only guide and the Supreme Court the prime arbiter on whether or not a particular action is constitutional.
  • Such display of dissent cannot affect a country’s foreign policy as friends in the international sphere are chosen for the contribution they make for the common good or for bilateral benefits.
  • Equally, the absence of protests in a diverse country like India does not guarantee a trouble-free relationship.
  • The old dictum that the success of foreign policy depends on the capacity of the country to help or harm others and not on the absence of internal protests is still valid.

 

3) On novel coronavirus outbreak: Alarming spread


  • India is still novel coronavirus free, even as 18 countries/regions have reported 67 cases, as on January 28, according to WHO. As on Monday, all 20 samples sent to the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune were negative, according to a Health Ministry tweet on Tuesday.
  • Besides the NIV, four other laboratories have been equipped for testing. Thermal screening of passengers from China will now be extended from seven to 20 airports; around 33,000 passengers have been screened so far.
  • With Nepal reporting one case, another Health Ministry tweet says, “adequate preparedness for screening” is in place in five adjoining States. But it must be noted that in 2017, the Ministry kept under wraps the detection of three cases of the Zika virus in Gujarat.
  • These came to light when WHO was informed in May that year, more than five months after the first case was laboratory-confirmed; the excuse was that the government wanted to avoid creating “panic”.
  • Such irresponsible behaviour by China had led to the spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus that claimed 774 lives globally in the early 2000s. India should under no circumstances repeat this with the novel coronavirus as much is not known about the virus.
  • In China, despite nearly 20 million people being locked down across Hubei province, the virus appears to be spreading with renewed vigour. Cases reported from mainland China have risen sharply - from 1,975 on January 25 to 2,744 on January 26 and 4,515 on January 27.
  • Fatalities too have reflected a similar trend, touching 106 on January 27. The number of exported cases and countries that have such cases have also been increasing. The first case of human-to-human transmission was reported in Vietnam, and now Germany.
  • The virus has long acquired the ability to spread among humans; WHO’s emergency committee meeting statement said China had reported fourth-generation cases within, and second-generation cases, outside Wuhan. Alarmingly, unlike SARS, more asymptomatic novel coronavirus cases are being reported.
  • Besides a reported case in China, WHO has reported three other such instances outside that country. But China’s recent warning that the novel virus might be spreading even before there are symptoms has the potential to change the infection landscape if true.
  • It is not clear if these were the reasons why, on Monday, WHO silently updated the global risk assessment from “moderate” to “high retroactively” from January 23.
  • If the virus had exhibited all the attributes necessary to be declared as a “public health emergency of international concern” even during the first emergency committee meeting, the situation has become grim since then. WHO cannot dither any longer as the coronavirus spreads with renewed vigour.

 

4) On move to sell 100% stake in Air India: Maharaja on sale


  • Almost two years since the first attempt which failed to enthuse buyers, Air India is back on sale. Call it the government’s desperation to exit the troubled airline that is devouring tax-payer money or call it smart learning from the last failed attempt.
  • But the terms this time are exceptionally favourable and clearly appear to be tailored based on feedback from prospective buyers. As per the document inviting Expression of Interest (EOI), the government will sell 100% equity in the national carrier and Air India Express Ltd.
  • Its 50% holding in AISATS, the joint venture with SATS Ltd., Singapore; the debt that the buyer will assume has been whittled down to ₹23,286.50 crore to match the written down value of its assets; the net worth of prospective bidders is reduced to ₹3,500 crore and bidding consortium members can have as low a stake as 10% only.
  • It almost appears as if the terms are designed with specific bidders in mind. But there is one catch. The government has not addressed a prime hurdle to the stake sale - the fate of 17,984 employees of Air India and Air India Express, 9,617 of whom are permanent.
  • Of the three troublesome factors that put off bidders the last time round - the government’s insistence on holding a 24% stake in the airline post-privatisation, the large debt that it was expecting the buyer to assume and employee issues - the first two have been addressed but not the last one.
  • Apart from the huge employee base, the successful bidder will also have to deal with pension liability for the airline’s retired employees and their perks such as free/rebated tickets.
  • All that the EOI document says is that contingent liabilities due to retired employees will be clarified at the Request for Proposal stage. If there is one weak spot on which the sale attempt could falter it is this.
  • There is no escaping the fact that whoever buys the airline will have to shed surplus labour. A turnaround will not be possible without pruning employee costs. Maybe the government is hoping to negotiate with short-listed bidders on this sensitive issue that could have the airline’s unions up in arms.
  • Yet, lack of upfront clarity on this may put off prospective bidders. The government ought to have gone the whole hog and clearly stated its intent. Maybe a moratorium for a specified period on forced attrition could have been spelt out. This would have helped bidders make up their minds.
  • There has been criticism that a “nationalist” government is selling off the national airline. But such criticism has to take into account that precious taxpayer money has been washed down the drain trying to save the airline.
  • A whopping ₹30,500 crore has been sunk into Air India since 2012 despite which it has been posting losses. The best way to save the airline, its jobs and the national exchequer is to sell it. And sell it on the best possible terms with minimum compromise on employee interests.