By Kuber Bathla
As issues of national importance remain unsolved due to a multitude of reasons, the pandemic hit the country when it was least ready for it. As the nation seeks solutions in the aspects of economy, policy, domestic as well as international affairs, the familiar voice of Mani Shankar Aiyar offers some insights. A veteran in the realms of politics and diplomacy, Aiyar has worked extensively in these fields and has frequently given his voice on issues that matter.
On the Indian economy, Aiyar believes that reducing the level of interdependence on other nations in the matters of trade will only affect the economy in a harmful manner. He does not put faith in the goal of Atma Nirbharta and believes that there are no concrete policies to back the Prime Minister’s claims. As the economy was already in a mess before the outbreak, it is important to have someone better at the helm to navigate through the crisis, he said. On the idea of labour laws being dismantled to encourage employment, Aiyar said that it is “not only a stupid proposition, but it’s also a cruel proposition”. He said that despite the low number of people who benefit from such laws, it is important that we do not sacrifice our democracy for a “perceived high rate of growth”.
The only way to deviate supply chains towards India is to have a very efficient policy- macro and micromanagement. This, coupled with a hope that Indian firms will create enough opportunities to become a better prospect of investment for the Americans, as compared to China. A part of instilling confidence in investors also lies in handling the migrant labour crisis in a better manner, something which the government has failed to do.
On the issues of foreign policy, Aiyar makes it quite clear that only a strong neighbourhood shall help India to have better relations with other nations that lie across the Pacific and the Atlantic. He says, “We ought to be evaluating our relationships with the United States on the one hand, and China and Russia on the other hand, on a completely fresh basis so that we go back to first principles of non-alignment”. He also blames Hindutva and the government’s pro-Hindu policies for being detrimental in the ailing relations with India’s arch-rival Pakistan. The goal is to be secular and remain true to the ideals envisioned by the founding fathers of the constitution.
Calling for a behavioural change on the part of the government in the healthcare sector, Aiyar said, “We are prioritizing defence, heavy investment, private sector, and not prioritizing the two sectors- health and education- that are aching for government intervention. And so long as investment in public goods is as low as they are, and so long as the Panchayats are not made an integral part of last-mile delivery of both education and health, I'm afraid we are going to continue to live with completely wrong priorities”.
Envisioning a strong opposition in the coming years, Aiyar believes that it is necessary for the Indian National Congress to create a public forum for ideas and discussions, so as to lead the party towards the right direction.
Seasonal Magazine’s Kuber Bathla speaks to Mani Shankar Aiyar in this wide-ranging interview:
How do you think, in the post-COVID age we can have prevention, self-reliance and globalisation on the same tangent?
MSA: I think that is a very overarching goal. We need to recover, economically. And to recover, we need ourselves and the world. I don’t see how by reducing the level of interdependence in the name of Atma Nirbharta, we can achieve the ultimate goal. So I think Mr Modi’s prescriptions are just rhetoric. There’s no logic of policy to them. Therefore, I see the recovery taking a very long time, and in any case, our economy was in a complete mess long before any of us had heard the word COVID. There were structural problems, particularly demand, that needed to be attended to, but the government was showing no inclination to do that, and was pushing ahead with its political agenda, which came a cropper in December, when all these protests broke out in 100 campuses in India and Shaheen Bagh, with maybe lakhs of imitations of Shaheen Bagh in the rest of the country. There has been no attention paid to economic issues since May last year, although it is these economic issues that have been dominant. So in the absence of a leadership that does understand economics, but is excellent at high-empty rhetoric, I am afraid I cannot see the way forward. I only hope that the inherent forces in our economy will help us recover.
Do you think that dismantling labour laws for rapid industrialization would lead to economic stability in the long run? (Given the context of Uttar Pradesh)
MSA: It’s not only a stupid proposition, but it’s also a cruel proposition. India has been a member of the ILO (International Labour Organization) since its inception in 1919, and has, among developing countries, the most advanced labour law. Now it’s true that only about 8% of our workforce, which is in the organized force, is able to avail of these advantages. But in reducing organized working force conditions, to those of unorganized working force conditions, I don’t see how there is any great economic benefit involved. Yes, perhaps we need to relax some of these laws, in view of the fact that India, in 2020, is no longer as poor as it was when I was your age. But nevertheless, having a decent wage and proper conditions for workers’ safety and for the safety of their employment are all necessary characteristics of a democracy. I don’t think we should be sacrificing democracy in the alter of a perceived high rate of growth. So what the UP Government has done is perhaps a trailer of what the Union government is going to do, and it’ll be a very sad day when we decide that the welfare of people like Modi and me is much more important than that of a migrant worker, who today is walking home because the government had a very sudden lockdown and made no arrangements for the disruption that it would cause.
Should India continue to spend resources outwards as there are many opportunities now? (in terms of investment, incentives, tax breaks, or the use of corporate diplomats- especially since China’s supply chain has been greatly affected and India can become the centre of the world's supply chain) Or should it focus inwards, given the crisis that the country is facing (in terms of low demand)?
MSA: I think, to begin with, we should concentrate on mending our broken economy. That means, undertaking policies that will restore growth initially to the very low level at which it was before covid struck, and eventually getting back to the rates of growth that Manmohan Singh had engendered in our economy. And that requires very efficient policy- macro and micro-management- that has not been in evidence for the last six years. Therefore, I do not foresee a miracle that will teach people like Modi who never went to University, and Nirmala Sitharaman who may have got some degree in Jawaharlal Nehru University, but has displayed no economic expertise in her new capacity as the finance minister. I am very sceptical of the possibility of getting back to even December 2019, let alone to 2007, when we were growing at over 9%, and it was feasible to talk about us hitting 10%. Now unless we repair our broken Economy, all this wild talk about people taking investments out of China and bringing them to India is just daydreaming. There are many other economies, COVID affected, in south-east Asia particularly, where they can relocate and where the economy has not been broken, either pre-COVID or post-COVID. So I think instead of talking this kind of rhetoric, I am putting our hopes on Americans suddenly pulling out of China and desperately looking to go somewhere, and finding in India the golden opportunity. I think all this kind of rhetoric should be put to one side, and in a realistic manner we need to rebuild our economy and were we to ever get back to Manmohan Singh's 9% rate of growth, then automatically there will be a great deal of economic investment in India by those looking for alternative supply chains.
What kind of mechanisms do you think are necessary to instil confidence in investors that over medium term both fiscal as well as financial stability will be maintained?
MSA: I think you're going into a lot of jargon with that question. The most important thing is for the world to recognise that we are humane enough to look after millions upon millions who till yesterday were employed or self-employed and who today are struggling to get back to their villages, swearing that they'll never come back to the industrial centres of the country. In a country where the most important economic hubs are the most significant corona hubs, it is our metropolis that is really badly affected by the coronavirus, and Gujarat, for some strange reason, is showing a much higher level of corona infections and particularly deaths than any other state in India that is of comparable demography. So there is a lot to fix here, in terms of just pulling ourselves out of the abyss into which we've been pushed, instead of talking the kind of Language that is inherent in your question. Until we get back from the abyss unto the brink, I think it's absurd to look at the high mountains and say, 'One day I'll reach there'.
SAARC (or South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) has always been rendered as an ineffective organisation in the international domain, but its performance during COVID-19 has been impressive in terms of coordination and co-operation. What do you think should be the future of this organization, and India’s role in it?
MSA: Will you please tell me that apart from having a teleconference, that was widely publicized, what other steps have been taken? Yes, India has given small sums of money, and small amounts of assistance to our neighbours, but with Nepal, we've stoked a huge rumble, and we don't know what we're going to do about it. We've never in the Modi era been able to handle our relationship with Pakistan. Our relationship with China has been deteriorating. It had deteriorated with Bhutan, in the past, although I think the King has been very sensible in pulling back from deterioration. [With] Bangladesh, our relationship has wrecked, by this attempt at identifying Muslims as Bangladeshis and threatening to send them back. There's no great improvement in our relationship with Sri Lanka. In the Maldives, yes, things are better, but that's not because of us, that's because of the Maldivians, having got ridden of their previous government. So I see nothing in our South Asia policy, that could be called constructive. Therefore, by definition, SAARC, maybe, is a PR exercise. Mr Modi is much more an EM than a PM- is much more an Events Manager than a Prime Minister. And that is why we see this tattered South Asia policy, despite his having said, at the beginning of his tenure, 'Neighbours First'.
What do you think is the reason behind Western countries handling the crisis in a poor manner and the oriental nations doing relatively better? Does this indicate anything about the future of International Politics?
MSA: Well, I think as far as the Western world is concerned, we must distinguish between the United States and Europe. The United States is run by a man called Narendra Donald Trump, and he's made a complete mess of handling this whole crisis, and the only thing that he has achieved is 'Howdy, Modi!' and 'Howdy, Donald!'. I don't think this is the way to run foreign policy. We are at the most serious crisis in the identity of Asia in the last 70 years. The cold war was fought between the United States and the USSR, and then we were non-aligned. Now, a second cold war is starting up, particularly under Trump, and in that, we are getting increasingly aligned with the United States of America, and because we are in Asia and they're on the other side of the Pacific and the Atlantic, if the second cold war deteriorates into the third World war, then India will be Belgium, on whose soil the war will be fought. So instead of taking this moment to proclaim our friendship with the United States, especially in defence matters, at a time when there's a needless propagation given by the US to China and an equally needless reciprocation given by the Chinese, I think we ought to be adopting a Non-aligned posture, exactly as Europe's posture in the last couple of years is. Now I don't know if your viewers have followed what happened at the World Health Assembly, but at the WHA held only about two weeks ago, Donald Trump and through him his health secretary, had announced that they had a number of goals for the assembly. One was to get China condemned for what it had done- they failed miserably. The other was to get the Director-General of the WHO condemned- they failed miserably. And the third was to get Taiwan in with observer status so that they could caucus snook with the People's Republic of China, and on all three they failed- not because India said anything (India said nothing at all)- but it was the Europeans who tied up with the Chinese to refuse to be distracted from this pandemic by the domestic politics of the Republican frontrunner in a domestic election in the United States, in the coming November month. And he goes on and on about sleepy Joe when he ought to be dealing with the pandemic. And that is why, long ago, several weeks ago, the number of people who've died in America as a result of the COVID pandemic is higher than the biggest American tragedy of my generation, which was the American invasion of Vietnam. They had 58 thousand young boys of your age (I was your age then) killed in Vietnam on a useless war, and now they killed about 70-80 thousands of Americans in this Pandemic, where everyone else has a much more restricted kill [death rate]. Europe has been adversely affected, but it's dealing with it, and therefore what appeared like a very dangerous situation in countries like Spain, Germany and Britain seems much more under control, than the United States that's now burning because of what was done to this young man Lloyd. So I think when you talk of the West, which is a very old phraseology: There's an America, there's a Europe and there are some parts of Asia which are under the American heel. Bug the dream of the 21st century being the century of America in Asia is I think completely over, and we ought to be evaluating our relationships with the United States on the one hand, and China and Russia on the other hand, on a completely fresh basis so that we go back to first principles of non-alignment, i.e. not neutrality, but participation in world affairs without being 'Parti Pris' as the French say, ‘without having to bend to one side or the other in advance of dealing with the merits of a question’. And that requires a very stable neighbourhood. So until Mr Modi can get a hold of his South Asia policy, he will not have a hold of his Asia policy, and therefore will not have a hold over foreign policy as a whole. I don't think foreign policies consists of holding mega rallies of NRIs in some stadium in Houston, or indeed on the eve of the pandemic hitting India, getting two lakh people together to say 'Namaste Trump', which has led to 'Namaste Corona' in Ahmedabad in Corona, which is the worst affected city of its size in India today. What Modi did to Ahmedabad, his friend Trump is doing to the United States.
According to Stephen Cohan, South Asia is the least economically intertwined region of the world, having merely 5 per cent intraregional trade. India and Pakistan have acted like realists, with a major focus on maximising their military power rather than focus on things like economic interdependence. Do you think there should be, or there could be, a change in the coming years?
MSA: Yes! If we can get rid of Modi. No, if we can't get rid of him. By present reckoning, the opposition is in too much disarray to be able to even take advantage of the present political problems of Modi, let alone what they'll deal in four years from now. So I have an extremely pessimistic reading of India-Pakistan relations in the remaining Modi years, however many they may be. I doubt that we'll ever get back to the Manmohan-Mussharaf phase, where even the problem of Kashmir was being sorted out, but for an accident of history would have now been behind us. So we need an enlightened leadership to have an enlightened neighbourhood policy, and if we're going to head towards Hindutva, a Hindu India, then you can kiss goodbye to all your young generation hopes. There's no way in which India and Pakistan can get together, so long as Mr Modi is fulfilling Jinnah's dream of having two nations on the subcontinent. We said in 1947, 'You can have your Islamic Pakistan if you want, but we are not going to become a Hindu India, and that is why Jinnah was able to realize only half his dream. But now, his forces are working on India, and we're moving from being a secular nation to being a Hindu nation- a nation which discriminates on religious matters against its own people- and that is why the protests that had broken out in December and January will have to be resumed once this COVID crisis is over.
What do you think should be the role of rural governments in collecting data, taking into account factors like caste and gender, for coming up with welfare schemes and institutions that might help in development?
MSA: As far as figures on caste are concerned, a very deliberate decision was taken to not include them in the census, except for Scheduled castes (SCs). But states have made their own arrangements to collect information about what is called the backward castes. And since the Mandal agitation of 1990, I'm afraid we have moved in a backward direction, and where we were hoping that Indians could move out of their caste configuration of their own standing in society and their position vis-a-vis other Indians, I am afraid we have regressed in the last 30 years, and the dream that we have back in the 1980s, in fact, let me take you back to the 50s, when the Kelkar committee report on the backward classes was first submitted, and chairman Kelkar actually wrote in its premise, that he hoped his recommendation would not be implemented because it could lead to the renewed caste-ization of the Hindu society. But these are now realities to contend with, and I think most states have a fairly clear idea as to who are the backward castes, and by subtracting them from the total number of Hindus, you can get the number of the forward castes, especially by taking into account the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. So I don't see that as a practical way forward. There are many other things that we can do. We have discovered that the Muslims of India are the least beneficiaries of the processes of progress that had taken place in the first 65 years or so of India's independence and we were beginning to address those issues when we lost the government, and now I see nothing but discrimination against the Muslims and alienation of our minorities and had seen today how some Christian pastor in Tamil Nadu has escaped with 16 stitches on his head and [I think] 9 stitches on his arm. So this kind of religious intolerance which characterized the 20s and led to the partition of India is going to lead to the partition of our country again- The disintegration of our country, not the partition. Unless we firmly return to the path of Gandhi and Nehru, which is Secularism, and a determined effort to get rid of the caste system progressively, if not in a sudden go.
It has been seen that countries with better surveillance technology have done better when it comes to handling the crisis. (Case in point: Vietnam) What do you think, then, is the future of surveillance in India?
MSA: I am afraid I am not sufficiently technically competent to answer that question, but I certainly see surveillance of an authoritarian kind- of the kind that the government of India today is attempting to impose on our nation- as a throwback to the period of the emergency. And therefore, where the emergency was an aberration in the evolution of our Democracy, I'm afraid the kind of surveillance and authoritarianism that we've been seeing evolving over the last 6 years is what is, to use a favourite phrase of the journalists today- the new normal. Therefore, I am very apprehensive of it, but I do confess that I'm too technologically challenged to be able to answer your question satisfactorily.
Do you think that, in terms of a behavioural change, both Indian citizens and the government may start spending more on healthcare and hygiene in the post-COVID-19 world?
MSA: You're talking about the behavioural change of the people or our government? What we need, most importantly, is behavioural change on the part of the government. The government needs to prioritize education and health above all other considerations. We are prioritizing defence, heavy investment, the private sector, and not prioritizing the two sectors- health and education- that are aching for government intervention. And so long as investment in public goods is as low as they are, and so long as the Panchayats are not made an integral part of last-mile delivery of both education and health, I'm afraid we are going to continue to live with completely wrong priorities. We need a situation in which the top politicians of India look to become the health minister and the HRD minister, and not the defence minister and the finance minister. That is the day when we will be able to secure the required behavioural change on the part of the government, and after that we can look after the behavioural change on the part of the people. I don't think the answer lies in wearing masks and keeping a social distance, which in any case can only be done by people like you and me because we have already secured our own health parameters. It can't be done in the slums of India, it doesn't need to be done in the villages of India. Behavioural change is required of the government, not of the people.
If you could propose ideas for resurrecting the Congress party, what would those be?
MSA: You know it's very difficult for me to answer your question because I am a member of the Congress Party. I have put out my ideas in my columns, and I have happily been not reprimanded for that. But I do think these issues need to be very very seriously tackled, but cannot be tackled on a public platform. And by creating controversies outside of the framework, that the party has or should have, and maybe that's why we should start 'should have'- to have a full democratic open discussion of these issues. After all, this is our party- it's not your party, it's not the party of the opposition (of those who want to see a Congress Mukt Bharat)- these are issues that relate to the congress party itself, and I regret that we do not seem to have a forum where ordinary members of the congress like myself can be heard. Maybe that's what needs to be done, but if you would take the trouble of reading some articles that I have written on the subject, particularly before the COVID outbreak, you'll see that I do have ideas, but I don't want to discuss them on this open public platform.
(This interview originally appeared in Seasonal Magazine's Podcast: https://anchor.fm/seasonal-magazine/episodes/Seasonal-Magazines-Interview-with-Mani-Shankar-Aiyar--Author--Politician--Former-Diplomat-efn8i8)