India has now become the sick man of South Asia

India has never looked so vulnerable and edgy in its own neighbourhood as it looks now.
Published October 26, 2020

Be it India's economy, its handling of the Coronavirus pandemic, its socio-political landscape, its foreign policy, its handling of security and its democratic institutions and instincts — all are in a varying degree of crisis today, endangering the nation’s rise as a credible and stable global player.

Indian economy is passing through a historic low being witnessed for the first time since its independence in 1947. With the economy witnessing a negative growth of more than 10 per cent, the rising economic power of South Asia looks a pale shadow of its former self.

The handling of the pandemic betrays a complete lack of imagination and planning and as a result despite imposing the strictest and longest lockdown in the world, New Delhi has failed to achieve desired results. No country in the world has failed as miserably as India in providing adequate safety nets to its vast population. As a result, millions of lives are at stake and very soon India will end up having the largest number of coronavirus cases in the world.

Separately, security situation at the Himalayan border is in a very precarious state, something the country is witnessing after four decades. More than five months have passed since the Ladakh region became tense, dealing a heavy blow to the trust New Delhi had built with China in the last three decades and putting extra burden on the country’s economy. The imbroglio also brings into sharp focus the wisdom of established strategic thinking.

As a result, today, South Asia’s biggest nation stands isolated in the region. New Delhi’s divisive domestic politics and its erroneous geo-political thinking has put India at a discount in most neighbouring capitals. India has never looked so vulnerable and edgy in its own neighbourhood as it looks now.

The domestic situation is also not very encouraging. Social and religious fissures are at an all time high, majoritarian politics has further alienated Kashmir, and India’s minority and liberal sections feel persecuted. Democracy is under siege in the country with an open attack on the press, against dissenting voices and the political opposition. Today we are witnessing an atmosphere where diversity is openly discounted and secularism is seen as an abuse.

Television debates and media discourse however blanks out these multiple crises confronting India. On the contrary, a vocal section of the media is doing everything in its power to distract the public from the issues at hand and protect the image of the regime which has brought India to such a pass.

For example, for the last few months, the media has been debating the suicide of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput. A section of the media known for its ideological and political proximity with the ruling establishment invented a conspiracy in the death of the actor, following which news media became a reality TV hub and with every passing day a new theory of death and a new villain was planted in the public imagination. This was done not to find responsibility or investigate in order to get to the truth of the matter but to digress and distract the public. The drama subsided only when Rajput’s partner Rhea Chakraborty, a victim of false and motivated propaganda, was arrested.

The question is: was the hysteria created by the media driven by elusive television rating or was there more to the madness?

A cooler analysis tells you that a majoritarian agenda is at play and the ruling establishment is not losing sleep over India’s growing downward graph; it is however working over time with a pliant media to dismantle the secular and plural DNA of the nation.

Rajput’s death also became a means to attack Bollywood, which is by far the strongest proponent of diversity. There is a discernible attempt to coax the film world to fall in line with the majoritarian thinking of the governing party. The very fact that the government encourages rabid communal artists like Kangana Ranaut to become the voice of Bollywood further exposes the larger political and cultural intent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.

This intent is all the more visible the way the government is dealing with dissent. The arrest and detention of critics and political opponents and a shrinking space for democratic resistance further reveals that the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not fully focused on dealing with the pandemic, nor is it interested in reviving the economic fortune of the country. On the contrary, Modi is using the pandemic as an excuse to further his political agenda.

The situation has come to such a pass that secularism and diversity have openly come to be attacked. Popular jewellery brand Tanishq was forced to withdraw an ad portraying an interfaith marriage. The social media backlash against the ad was so vehement that the brand not only withdrew the 45 seconds long short film but also apologised. When have we seen such animosity in India towards its own civilisation and heritage of diversity? Following this, Home Minister Amit Shah asked the public not to 'over react'. These events illustrate that the echo system created by the BJP has made such an open attack on diversity a normal affair.

At the same time, the government is going full throttle in shutting down democratic dissent by creating difficulties for independent NGOs and getting in the way of their smooth functioning. Very recently, Amnesty International was forced to suspend its operations in India after its bank accounts were frozen in a government “witch-hunt”.

Additionally, things have become so dire that global journalist bodies — the Austria-headquartered International Press Institute (IPI) and Belgium-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) — have urged Prime Minister Modi to take urgent action against the rising use of draconian sedition laws and other legal sanctions to threaten and silence journalists in India.

Commenting on the current state of affairs, senior Indian journalist Harish Khare recently wrote that Indian politics is sliding into “a stereotypical authoritarian ‘Third World’ country of the mid-1970s” and given what the country is becoming, its current stewardship should perhaps stop pretending that the country should be an aspiring world leader.