Slipping into Irrelevance, Slowly but Surely
Sunil Mahajan 28 December 2021
Success Occurs When Opportunity Meets Preparation.- Zig Ziglar
 
India has traditionally punched far below its weight. We are a large country with the second-highest population and the seventh-largest landmass. Every sixth human being on the globe is an Indian. That should suffice for India to have a significant say in global affairs. Yet, we find our influence being eroded on the global scene and, in recent times, steadily waning. 
 
The world values and respects power. Weak nations have no place in the geopolitical scheme of things. Despite some recent setbacks, the US dominates, if not monopolises, global affairs and institutions. Not only is it the strongest economically, but its soft power is also respected worldwide. China has grown economically and in terms of its technological capability over the past three decades. People notice when it says something, even if they disagree with it.
 
Today, India has neither the economic strength nor the soft power to be a significant player in global space. That was understandable until the early-1990s since India was a protected economy that did not encourage interaction with the outside world. The highly successful reforms in the 1990s kindled hopes of a confident India engaging on equal terms with the global powers. 
 
Unfortunately, it is now a well-established fact that India is an inward-looking nation with little inclination to open itself up. We undertake reforms only out of compulsion and not any conviction, preferring to meet our needs internally within the country, even terming such an approach patriotic. Our outlook is inward. 
 
Many policies and attitudes of the 1950s and 1960s continue, although the form and nomenclature may be different. What was earlier termed import-substitution is now a more catchy ‘atmanirbharta’. As Arvind Subramanian and Josh Felman rightly remarked, 'aspiring outward, turning inward'.
 
Let us look at the issue from the right perspective. India today has two significant advantages. The fight for supremacy between the Western world and China will be a long drawn-out affair. India has an integral role to play in this struggle, given our physical proximity to China, with a long border and a history of confrontation. That and the size of the country ensures we cannot be ignored, even if it be a forced, unwanted engagement.
 
But, we are messing up and messing up big time. Zig Zaglar stressed on preparation to convert an opportunity to succeed. By doing precisely the opposite, we are converting our opportunity to disaster.
 
In the recent past, India’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate has halved to 4% from 8.3%. The savings rate is significantly down, private investment does not appear to be forthcoming, and exports have been stagnant for almost a year decade. These figures are pre-pandemic, after which the economic conditions have deteriorated even more. The Indian story may well and truly be over.
 
The economic decline is, of course, quite damaging in nature and India has lost the attraction of a fast-growing economy. We could have easily weathered the decline and held out hopes for a better future. What has led to the country losing esteem in global affairs is a consistent fall in our standards of liberal democracy.
 
Establishing a liberal democracy is not easy. The government as well as the people of the country, must have a strong conviction and should be prepared to nurture it over long periods. The temptation to take shortcuts and an easy way out must be resisted. The most critical aspect is healthy criticism and dissent that must not only be tolerated and accepted but encouraged. 
 
We have, in the recent past, considerably sullied our image in this respect. We have shown an inability to accept any view that could be remotely construed as different. And, we have gone after such views with a heavy hand.
 
Let us look at some of the examples of the recent past. Since the days of TN Seshan as the chief election commissioner, elections in India have been mainly free and fair, a tremendous achievement in a country beset with poor law and order. That seems to be changing. Slowly but surely, the election commission is getting increasingly compromised. The fairness of the election process can no longer be taken for granted. The same sense of compromise characterises many other institutions of national importance. Without strong, independent institutions, liberal democracy becomes unsustainable.
 
Two years back, the Howdy Modi event held in Texas, US was a crass demonstration of hero-worshipping. It was also the first-ever instance of an Indian prime minister taking sides in a forthcoming US election. The Indian external affairs minister absented himself at the last minute from a meeting with US senators who were members of the foreign relations committee.
 
The sole reason was the presence of Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a known critic of the Indian government. Instead of using the meeting as an appropriate platform to put across India’s point of view, the minister’s absence seemed churlish. Being publicly rude to senators who may be critical of India’s human rights record is immature and does not endear us to the new administration in power now.
 
The reaction of the Indian government to criticism by Greta Thunberg, and the consequent arrest of Disha Ravi and other activists in what became famous as the toolkit episode, was so over the top that even hardcore admirers of the government were unable to fathom what was happening. Indeed, we have a very sensitive skin. 
 
Instead of talking to people with different views, taking everyone’s opinion into account, which is a fundamental aspect of democracy, the government has revealed a tendency to go after dissent, real or imagined, with all its might. Those who express a different view have had to face the might of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the enforcement directorate (ED), the income-tax (I-T) department and various other government authorities. Nothing can be more effective in insidiously destroying the very foundations of democracy in a country.
 
Epitomising the streak towards authoritarianism, far-reaching legislations are passed without reasonable discussion in the Parliament and outside. Legislative changes in Jammu & Kashmir were rushed through almost stealthily, with hardly any time given to the Parliament. It is instructive that, despite such a significant change, normal life eludes the state, with severe restrictions in force more than two years later. 
 
Agricultural laws were similarly passed without extensive discussions and the country faced the consequences, with a farmers’ agitation forcing the government to climb down. Now the decision to abrogate the laws has similarly been a closely guarded secret, sprung on the nation with surprise and, subsequently, rubber-stamped by the cabinet and passed in the Lok Sabha in a record 12 minutes. The ruling political party has used its majority to browbeat everyone, including its own members of Parliament, without realising its deleterious impact on the country’s image. Never, ever has the Parliament been treated with such contempt.
 
India remains the only large country which is not a part of any significant trade pact. With the dilution of the World Trade Organisation (WTO, most countries are engaged in building smaller trade groups. India of course shies away; being a member involves give and take and presupposes the ability to compete with other countries on equal terms. Since 2014, India has not signed a single trade pact with any country. 
 
Withdrawal from Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a shining example of the pusillanimity with which we approach free trade, relying instead on high import duties and unilateral regulatory action (protectionism!) on our part. The insular nature of the Indian society keeps asserting itself time and again and India continues to shy away from playing by global rules. 
 
One of the core tenets of a liberal regime is the rule of law, that law must be applied equally and in the same manner for every citizen. In this respect, India’s record has never inspired confidence; but we were improving and getting there, even if ever so slowly. The last few years have witnessed a reversal, with the common man increasingly facing discrimination while seeking justice.
 
Some of the laws passed during the past few years have not only been irrational but discriminatory in nature. The Citizen Amendment Act was the most insidious manifestation of such an attitude, going against the spirit of the constitution by discriminating between Indians on the basis of their religion. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called it “fundamentally discriminatory.”
 
Finally, the politics of polarisation and promotion of a Hindutva inspired agenda, culminating now in the hate conclave at Haridwar, do nothing to strengthen India’s claims of being a modern liberal society. 
 
India is slowly but surely becoming a violent nation. Nothing is more harmful to democracy than the use of violence to pursue one’s goals. Public lynching for various offences, real or perceived, has become a common feature. Violence now seems to permeate our social fabric like a leech, with consequences that can only be lethal.
 
Indian voters may dismiss such indiscretions as inconsequential; but the world at large and the Western democracies, in particular, do not feel comfortable.
 
They have taken notice, and they do not like what they see. Has anyone observed that the recent visit of Narendra Modi to the US, his seventh as prime minister of India, was one of the least consequential of any Indian prime minister, unless you take into account the public lesson on democracy he received from vice president Kamala Harris?
 
Our relationship with the world is one of hesitancy. Mention China to anyone, and the reaction is one of awe. Mention India in the same breath, and people would hem and haw and, finally, just shake their head as if to say ‘we can’t figure out what is happening there’. 
 
The outcome is that as a nation, despite inherent advantages, we seem to be descending towards irrelevance in global affairs. The world may tolerate us; but we will unfortunately never become an integral part of global geopolitics.
 
This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner journalist Maria Ressa, during her acceptance speech, had posed the question ‘What are you willing to sacrifice for Truth’? Indians have to answer an additional question ‘What are we willing to sacrifice for a vibrant, representative democracy’?
 
(Sunil Mahajan, a financial consultant and professor, has over three decades’ experience in the corporate sector, consultancy, and academics. He has recently authored a textbook on Corporate Finance, published by the Cambridge University Press.)
 
Comments
rr8826768
4 months ago
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sdsahasrabuddhe
4 months ago
Great opportunity to address prime readership simply wasted.
shraddha.kokane
5 months ago
What an elaborate review of the economy!
Yes I do agree too much of interference in institutions of national importance ruins the democratic view. RBI being compromised is a known fact but the way data is going to be recorded by CSO Central Statistical Org will ruin all future analysis as well.
Brilliantantly expressed!
surajit.som
5 months ago
It looks as if the article was issued by an opposition party coalition. Not that the NDA has done a terrific job but it is better than the 2 UPAs during which the PM did not have any political authority . Families, groups were taking decisions resulting in huge scams . Reg Muslims , they still have separate civil code. Is that a discrimination?
99sunil94
5 months ago
I am happy to read different points of view articulated by many readers. That is the essence of a vibrant democracy, the expression, exchange and appreciation of diverse viewpoints with civility. Unfortunately, as has been the experience in recent times, that is fast becoming a casualty and threatening our democracy.

I had stated in one of my earlier articles as follows:

“Liberalization of the Indian economy, initiated in 1991, held significant hopes that the giant elephant will finally awaken. India was potentially the largest market, with a rule-based democracy, an inclusive society and a guaranteed high savings and growth rate. No other country in the world offered a similar opportunity.”

India is losing the attractiveness of both a high growth rate (and therefore a stronger economy) and being a liberal democracy. I have given enough examples that buttress my view. It is essential to recognize and overcome these pitfalls if the country needs to progress.

My generation has for a long time harbored hopes of India becoming a strong, compassionate nation, with a significant say in global affairs. Whenever I see anything impeding that, it hurts. The article expresses the anguish in the hope that we are able to overcome forces that inhibit our progress.

Regards
Sunil Mahajan
Meenal Mamdani
Replied to 99sunil94 comment 5 months ago
I agree with you wholeheartedly.
Indians think democracy will survive and thrive on its own without any efforts on their part and all that is required is to vote in elections.
I used to think the same until I came to America and saw how ordinary citizens participated in civil society by engaging in organizations that watch what local, state and federal govts are doing and if they see something they are alarmed by, then they try to set it right. I am a dues paying member of several such watchdog organizations.
Middle class Indians must set up such organizations to monitor what is happening in society. ML Foundation monitors financial activity, but there are no similar groups for monitoring transportation, education, healthcare, etc.
The govt is afraid of such NGOs. See how it has made the regulations so complex and onerous that many NGOs are shutting down and new ones are afraid to register.
It is sad that comments to this article assume that this article is against a particular govt. No, all govts try to stifle scrutiny, some more brazenly than others.
I fervently hope that what is happening in India comes as a wake up call to all middle class Indians, because the rich like the status quo and the poor have no energy as they are just trying to survive.
aditya.kumar.pandey
5 months ago
Completely one-sided partisan post where opinions are presented as facts.
Meenal Mamdani
5 months ago
I am delighted to read this well reasoned and well written article and commend MLF for allowing this point of view which seems to have riled up some of the readers.
The writer has mentioned several facts and thankfully the unhappy readers have not challenged them with their own set of "alternative facts".
Readers are free to disagree with the opinion of the writer that these facts have been deleterious for India but they cannot challenge the facts themselves.
Shivram_R
Replied to Meenal Mamdani comment 5 months ago
I don't agree that this article is well reasoned as there are logical flaws and does not consider/explain any fact that does not align with the conclusion, and for this reason Moneylife should not have allowed it. I am presuming the facts presented by the author are correct, if they are facts why would anyone challenge them?
ragup
5 months ago
I don't understand the outrage of some comments for this opinion piece. Why can't an opinion be one-sided? It is the author's opinion, after all.

When one rejects one's opinion, s/he has to put forth valid points against the opinion instead of just rejecting it outright without any reasoning behind it, or questioning the integrity of MoneyLife.

And then this cliche "Poorly written". The article is well written (That does not mean we have to accept author's view). It's the rejection that is poorly written.
Shivram_R
Replied to ragup comment 5 months ago
Here are the reasons why I think this article is poorly written
a. I have absolutely no problems with the author having a completely one sided opinion. But such one sided opinions should be in his personal blog or a magazine that supports one political party (so that the subscribers are getting what they expect). As a paid subscriber to Moneylife, I expect Moneylife articles to consider all facts and then come to a conclusion. My opinion is that this article fails in that respect and hence poorly written.
b. In para 1, the author states that "we find our influence being eroded on the global scene and, in recent times, steadily waning". But absolutely no data or evidence is provided in the article to show exactly how this is so. Mind you, I am not trying to argue that the conclusion is wrong, simply saying that this article does not provide any evidence to substantiate its conclusion.
Shivram_R
Replied to Shivram_R comment 5 months ago
c. Para 3,4 and 5 at best supports the conclusion India was always irrelevant and continues to be irrelevant. However the author starts para 3 stating "Today, India has neither the economic strength nor the soft power to be a significant player in global space." The use of the word today seems to indicate that "yesterday" we were a significant player in global space. I do not see anything in para 3 to 5 to support this.
Shivram_R
Replied to Shivram_R comment 5 months ago
d. Para 8, the author states "The Indian story may well and truly be over.". He gives reduction in GDP from 8% to 4%, savings rate down, private investment down and stagnant exports as the reasons. The author does not state what the Indian story is though that is over. Is the author trying to suggest that we will never reach 8% GDP growth ever again or the savings rate will not recover again? Randomly picking up a few ratios that have shown a poor trend and then using those trends to conclude that there is no more hope is not really what I expect. I would have liked the author to explain what the India story is, what are the factors that are relevant to determine whether the Indian story is still on, which factors we have done well and which we have not done well, and why we will never be able do well on the factors in which we have not done well and then finally conclude that "The Indian story may well and truly be over." High forex reserves, highest tax collections and the top emerging market economies are a few positive factors I would have considered too in making a fair assessment of how we have done. By not mentioning any positive factor, I can only assume that the author has simply picked up evidences that assist in his conclusion.
Shivram_R
Replied to Shivram_R comment 5 months ago
e. Para 9 - "What has led to the country losing esteem in global affairs is a consistent fall in our standards of liberal democracy." In para 1, the author has stated that merely a high population can be sufficient to be significant. In para 2, the author has said power results in being significant giving US and China as examples. Now in this para the author suddenly states that the fall in liberal democracy is the reason for our "downfall"! The author first has to make up his mind as to what exactly makes a country significant according to him and list it upfront. This continuous shifting in every para makes it very confusing. The author also fails to explain why China is global revered even though it has not exactly been the poster child for liberal democracy. After this the author lists the reasons why our liberal democracy standards have fallen. Except for a simple statement that fall in liberal democracy is the reason country losing esteem in global affairs, I see no other explanation why this is so. I would have liked the author to show other countries where a fall in liberal democracy standards have led to the country doing poorly in the global arena, an explanation of why China is able to do much better inspite of not being a democracy. This type of reasoning is absurd because, I could have stated ""What has led to the country losing esteem in global affairs is the high amount of salt present in the Indian food." And then explained in the next 5 paras the types of food that Indians partake that have high salt intake. The sentences themselves may be factually correct but the logical connection between the premise and the argument is fundamentally flawed.
Shivram_R
Replied to Shivram_R comment 5 months ago
f. " Our relationship with the world is one of hesitancy. Mention China to anyone, and the reaction is one of awe. Mention India in the same breath, and people would hem and haw and, finally, just shake their head as if to say ‘we can’t figure out what is happening there’. " Can anyone honestly say that this is a logical argument? Who are these "people"? And why is their opinion important in arriving at the conclusion that the argument is making?
g. Final para -" Indians have to answer an additional question ‘What are we willing to sacrifice for a vibrant, representative democracy’?" - What should we sacrifice? I don't get it. Is the author asking us to sacrifice democracy because China has done what we could not? Or is the author asking us to vote out the incumbent party and bring in a more liberal party to power? If the latter, how is that a sacrifice?

Overall I think the article is poorly written because there are unexplained logical flaws, the author chooses evidences that support his conclusions and the article makes illogical associations. I have said all that I have to say and will no longer be defending my position on this. Thanks.
Shivram_R
5 months ago
This appears to be a completely one sided report written by someone who simply wants to make a political point with the author not even trying to appear to be a fair reviewer. Very poorly written. I am a bit surprised that Moneylife allowed such a biased article.
s.c.garg
5 months ago
The writer is residing in a fools paradise
SRS
5 months ago
The author asks: What are we willing to sacrifice?

We'll happily give up on worrywarts, pessimists and naysayers. Like the author of the article.
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