Sunday 20 December 2020

Modi, Johnson and the confluence of democracies (Sunday Guardian)



Cold War 2.0 has begun, and India seems on track to be part of the partnership of democracies opposing the march to primacy of the Sino-Russian alliance in the Indo-Pacific.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the UK is the guest of honour at the next Republic Day parade to be held on Rajpath. He has talked more than once of a “concert of democracies” to tackle the challenge posed internally by extremism and externally by the emergence of another communist superpower, the People’s Republic of China. It ought to be a given that any such grouping would include India, but in a less than logical world, this is not the case. The Atlantic Council, regarded as among the primary thought dispensers of the Atlantic community, includes not India but the European Union as a component of its version of the G10. That the EU is a coherent and unified group of states federated into a union with bonds sufficiently strong to be designated as a country seems a given to the Atlantic Council, and to Brexit enthusiasts in the UK, who managed to prise Britain away from the EU on the grounds that membership in the grouping was a grievous infringement to sovereignty. They should know. The British have been expert in extinguishing the sovereignty of more territories than any other country on the planet, in the process cobbling together an empire that straddled the world. It was only after the close of the war unleashed by Hitler and Tojo during 1936-45 (a period which includes the takeover of the Rhineland by the German military and the invasion of Manchuria and later historical China by Japan) that the US stepped forward to claim the mantle of global leadership, only to be contested in that by the USSR from the mid-1950s to around the 1980s, when the latter began a process of meltdown culminating in its fragmentation and collapse in 1992, the year P.V. Narasimha Rao began to seek (and eventually fail as a consequence of the myopia of the Clinton administration) to replace the vanished entente with Moscow. Under Xi Jinping, the third foundational leader of the Chinese Communist Party after Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the PRC has not hidden its intention to once again emerge as the Middle Kingdom, this time in Mao-Deng-Xi rather than in imperial hues. The apparent scientific and other successes of the PRC have led to a spurt of support for strong leadership in countries across the world, whether in India or Brazil or Russia, and in an intensification of the control of the state over the lives of citizens, an expansion of governmental power facilitated by the extraordinary curbs on activity placed as a consequence of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Much more than in previous years, the pandemic-caused expansion of the authority of the state in major democracies has made them resemble the governance structure of the PRC, rather than (as had been expected by numerous policymakers) the latter moving closer to the former over time.

India has a neighbour whose population of religious minorities has dropped from 38% in 1946 to less than 2% at present. School textbooks are filled with derogatory comments about selected religious practices, and the country has been majoritarian from the time it was separated from the rest of India and brought into the world by the British in 1947. The thinking in Whitehall was that Pakistan would be a reliable ally of the Atlantic alliance during Cold War 1.0, while India under Jawaharlal Nehru and his ideology of a fusion of Stalinist administration, Gandhian forbearance to foes and a society designed by Beatrice and Sidney Webb would most probably be lost as an ally. Nehru stood by his principles, in the 1950s, refusing to join with Eisenhower in seeking a halt to the takeover of Tibet by the PLA and backing Mao for the permanent UNSC seat even during the 1962 conflict and despite it being informally offered instead to India by the US and later, the USSR. Mahatma Gandhi would have been proud of such an act of sacrifice by the individual he chose over candidates such as Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and Vallabhbhai Patel as the Prime Minister of India on the grounds that when gone, Jawaharlal would “speak my language”. So deep was the compassion of the Mahatma that he advised the Viceroy of India to “allow Hitler to occupy British homes”, as such a gesture would transform the unmatched depths of the dictator’s depravity into a kindness not known to have been demonstrated by Adolf Hitler except perhaps to his Alsatian canine Blondi, which he finally killed (whether in a gentle manner or not we are not told) through poisoning. Given such extraordinary and saintly views about a mortal foe of Britain and its allies of Nehru’s principal supporter, it was no surprise that the British were less than certain that India under such a Prime Minister would stand by the US and the UK during Cold War 1.0. Now Cold War 2.0 has begun, and India seems on track to be part of the partnership of democracies opposing the march to primacy of the Sino-Russian alliance in the Indo-Pacific (quaintly named the Asia-Pacific by Nehruvians in the Biden entourage). Prime Minister Johnson is right in placing India as a central player in such an alliance, in contrast to those in his country and elsewhere who get confused between India with Pakistan and speak of the former as being the country where minorities are disappearing and where religious supremacy reigns. This about a country where there are 240 million religious minorities, among whom are some of the most influential (not to mention wealthiest) citizens in the land.

The Prime Ministers of the India and the UK, Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson, have much to discuss besides the symbolism of the two leaders being present together at India’s most consequential annual event. The democracies are running out of time in the face of the problems that await them, and both Modi and Johnson will be judged by their success in overcoming them.

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