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India: Turning Crisis into Opportunity with ‘inclusive independence’ and a human-centric world view

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi giving the independence day speech on August 15, 2020.

This weekend Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi outlined further policies for his domestic vision of Atmanibhar Bharat or ‘Self-Reliant India’ in his Independence Day speech, leaving some concerned for a nostalgic return to a closed economy. Weeks earlier Modi presented his international vision for a new ‘human-centric globalisation’ at the UN, which would emphasise humanity, rather than economy. Both visions are Modi making good on his commitment to turn Covid-crisis into opportunity.

Though the two notions appear in tension, India, as ever, is walking the fine line of paradox to yield its own brand of national governance and global relations. So just how do these seemingly paradoxical concepts fit together?

Hallmarks of human-centrism

Modi first called for ‘human-centric globalisation’ at the onset of Covid-19. During the Virtual G20 Summit in March he pressed for humanitarian aid for developing countries and a sharing of the Covid vaccine when developed. He urged a focus on ‘human issues’ such as climate change and terrorism, over economics and finance. His vision is of India at the helm of global leadership together with other champions of humanity for social impact and development, not just traditional economic performance.

Prime Minister Modi immediately walked his talk by engaging in ‘health diplomacy’. India exported Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), medicines and ventilators to more than 150 countries at the onset of the pandemic, including to Africa, Europe, the US, sanction-suffocated Iran and Australia. Modi committed India to knowledge-sharing among the international research community to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, forging arrangements with other countries through a series of bilateral calls to leaders across the world.

Importantly, however, Modi’s concept of ‘human-centrism’ goes beyond the focus on human issues. It is also about human representation. In July, at the UN Economic and Social Committee, he stated ‘multilateralism needs to represent the reality of the contemporary world’, and advocated reform of the UN on its 75th anniversary. Jay Panda, National Vice President of the BJP, reiterated this crucial point of human representation in a recent interview. He noted that, to date, globalisation has been led by economic powers, rather than human powers.

The post-WWII institutions are largely represented by states which 75 years ago had the world’s largest share of Gross Domestic Product – mainly the United States and major European economies like France. Though these countries remain strong, the rise of Asian economies is yet to be similarly represented in global fora. India, the second most populace nation in 2020, and the largest democracy ever in the history of humankind, is not adequately represented. If the purpose of international cooperation and leadership is for a sustainable future then humanity, not economy, must be at its heart. This is not to abandon economic prosperity, but to prioritise it in the context of humanity. Rather than asking what humankind can do for money, let the question be what money can do for humankind. This is the greatest difference that India has to offer.

Self-Reliant India

The government assures Self-Reliant India is not a throwback to a closed economy and protectionist measures. Rather, it is an ‘inclusive’ agenda that reimagines India further upstream the global supply chain. The heralded example of Atmanibhar is India’s success in PPE production: Ahead of the COVID-19 crisis India was a net importer of PPE and produced zero PPE kits according to the government; in just two months, India became the second largest global exporter after China. Though quality and standards must be invested in as much as domestic manufacture capability, this example embodies the notion of how ‘self-reliant India’ contributes to India’s vision of ‘human-centric globalisation’. India’s self-investment in domestic manufacture of PPE and other products could respond to the needs of people around the world.

Modi first announced Atmanibhar in May, announcing that self-reliance would stand across five pillars: ‘economy, infrastructure, 21st Century technology, demand and a vibrant demography’ and rolled out in phases ‘businesses, the poor, agricultural, new horizons for growth, government reforms and enablers’ and aspiring to commit approximately 10 per cent of India’s GDP. Over the past few months, the government has rolled out packages under the Atmanibhar banner to support economic recovery for businesses, including MSMEs and the poor, and announced needed liberalising agriculture reforms.

Modi’s Independence Day Speech announced new policies aimed at horizons for growth and government reforms – particularly around health and defence. These include controversial new import bans for 101 defence weapons to stimulate ‘Make in India’ domestic production of weapons, a move welcomed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. India is the second largest importer of arms globally, after Saudi Arabia, and weapons imports contribute to India’s diplomatic relations with France, Russia and Israel. The government is concerned that a country with India’s military size should have its own capability, especially in a context of heightening border tensions. Though a focus on self-reliance is understandable, the import-restricting mode of implementation causes pause for reflection in its protection of infant industries.

Modi also spoke to his new Digital Health Mission, which will increase tele-health services and increase efficiency in capturing data for epidemiological purposes and informing stronger health policy. Modi will also be investing heavily in India’s vaccine producing capability and is said to have three promising vaccines in production.

Understanding the challenges to mobility in the current crisis, PM Modi also announced investment in an optical-fibre upgrade, ensuring internet services to six million villages in the next 1000 days (by 2023). This addresses India’s growing digital divide, which threatens to leave behind millions of students who are not able to study online while learning is interrupted.

India’s long awaited New Education Policy, announced in July, also underwrites India’s self reliance. The policy steps up spending to 6 per cent of GDP and transforms education from primary school to higher education ensuring multidisciplinarity so all students benefit from a mix of education in STEM and humanities. The curriculum will also include global challenges such as climate change so that graduates are imbued with the fundamentals of ethical leadership. This is a commitment to human-centrism.

The lessons from history linger on in the memories of historians and hopefully of policy-makers. Nehru’s wariness of global markets was, in part, a distrust borne out of colonialism. For much of the 20th Century, India seemed to be on the wrong side of history, maintaining restrictive measures on the economy while the rest of the world opened and globalized. Though a completely closed economy does not best serve a country or the world, a completely open one can be devastatingly vulnerable to global supply chains – history attests to both these assertions. Today’s government assures that India’s approach to self-reliance has changed. In a recent interview Jay Panda characterised India’s 73rd year of Independence as a shift from ‘diffidence to confidence’. Atmanibhar Bharat is the mantra of India’s new brand of self-reliance with a renewed confidence of its place in the world. It aims at a new India not divorced from the world but diversified.

Though the increasing focus on diversification and self-reliance no doubt is partly aimed at reducing reliance on China, COVID-19 has made it clear international supply chains are vulnerable to disruption, and planning is required to ensure continued security and access to essential supplies, such as medicine, food and energy. Many countries around the world are pursuing self-reliance in some form as a result of the Covid-19 awakening or at least diversifying their sources in case of disruption (due to disease or other destabilisers).

However, it is important that Atmanibhar Bharat not be a sly trojan horse to slay the dragon. As Ram Madhav, National General Secretary for the BJP, recently stated in his address at India Global Week, the Indo-Pacific is now the most dynamic region in the world, replacing the Trans-Atlantic as the economic engine of the 21st Century, and becoming the greatest hotspot for contest and contention. However, he also noted that in a Cold War with China, no one would win.

Where the concepts of ‘self-reliance’ and ‘human-centricsm’ converge is on people, capability and performance. India’s investment in capability in health and medicine and in other technology sectors will have equally positive impacts on a human centric globe if investment in manufacture is met in investment in standards and quality. At a time when India holds key positions across security, health and economic organisations with representation on the UN Security Council, chair of the WHO Executive Board and upcoming host of the G20 in 2022, it is appropriate that India underwrites is global leadership with domestic capability.

(Tanya Spisbah is a strategist, negotiator and advocator, passionate about impact for a sustainable planet. She is renowned for her work on Australia-India relations, particularly with respect to inclusive sustainable development. As director of the Australia India Institute in New Delhi, she promotes bilateral research collaboration for sustainable development and sheds light on contemporary Indian foreign and public policy in a multipolar world.)


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