Mr. Harsh V. Pant is the Director, Studies, and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi. He is also a professor of international relations at King's College London. 1. We see Indian political actors continuously repeating the decisions they deem successful in containing the pandemic, like Spotify ads playing on loop. But we see that there is a scarcity of questions from the public. So what are the questions that the public should ask the government? What are the hidden flaws the public should hold the government accountable for in their handling of the pandemic in the country?
Mr. Pant: So, what is happening at the moment is that there are two crises, the health and the wealth crisis. We have a situation that started as a health crisis and is increasingly turning into a wealth crisis; the crisis of the economy. There are no perfect solutions to this problem because it is a tough public policy issue to manage. After all, there is no template available, as this is something that is happening for the first time, on such a scale and the effects have been quite extraordinary. Across the world, no government comes out of this as an exemplary one, barring one or two, and that because of their size. So when we talk about successful examples, they are smaller countries like New Zealand and Taiwan, but we cannot compare these two with India given the sheer differences in scale. For example, when comparing what has happened in Europe in the initial stages, which were supposed to be the developed economies with excellent health infrastructure. Even what is happening in America, which is supposed to be the number one economy in the world, I think India seems to have managed alright and has not performed badly. The issue here is of going forward and what kind of a framework is evolved, with both the crises and how it can be tackled together. At the moment, what we see is a great degree of decentralization with the states responding to the situation very differently, and have different response mechanisms with some implementing lockdown, while some are focusing on the economy. Everyone is worried about the trade-off as we can't keep the economy perpetually under the lockdown mode because economic revival is essential, but attempts at economic revival will only increase the numbers in the short term. So, I don't think anyone has a clear idea, and all the states are trying to performing to the best of their abilities, depending on their understanding of the situation. 2. Do you think a proxy war has been waged by the central Government regarding its policies on Minorities and Refugees? Please explain your stance by citing examples.
Mr. Pant: I do not think that there is a proxy war, but there are serious public policy issues about citizenship, migration, state actors in India, and about what needs to be done. I further do not think this country has had a good discussion and debate on these issues. We have been muddling along for a long time, and there is a need for a policy response on the issue. As far as I understand this, the current government is wanting to address this, and it is something the present government manifesto said that they would do. So, it is not something that they are doing out of the blue but something they were elected upon. You run on a political platform, you get elected, and you translate that platform into policies. These policies were brought in through standard mechanisms, and they were not enacted through a backdoor or by a governmental proclamation. They were brought in the Parliament and debated there, and people and parties had their say, and some even opposed these. So, while citizens are free to express their opposition, my sense on this question of the citizenship amendment bill or the abrogation of article 370 in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir is that both of these issues were brought in through standard mechanisms. You can have a criticism of that policy by critics, but every policy that any government would like to bring in would have its share of critics in a democracy. Similarly, even this policy had been brought in or not liked by someone and some groups and some individuals or organizations they are free to express their opposition, but as far as the policy process is concerned I think it has been very similar to the policy processes in the past that the party that comes to power brings about its own set of policies. Both these issues are highly contested, debated, discussed, and they were passed by the Parliament and have parliamentary approval. One can question certain aspects of these policies and their implementation but issues such as citizenship, borders, and migration are always very contentious for all societies. Even for the most developed societies like those in Western Europe, for example, they have a fairly detailed and well-established system of who can become a citizen and who cannot, and even then the contestation continues. So, thinking that India will resolve a matter that has been pending for decades without any contestation seems to be rather naive. This government has articulated a certain position and has put this issue on the public policy platform. There are challenges to it in the judiciary and outside but that is for the institutions of the country to manage and decide. 3. There has also been a rising opinion for the revival of QUAD to counter China, its rising power, and its hostility towards these nations, what would you like to comment upon the same? (In terms of foreign and nuclear policy)
Mr. Pant: QUAD first came Into existence in 2007 and was first talked about then, and, at that point of time, India and Australia were not very keen on the QUAD because they felt that this would annoy the Chinese. But, by 2017, all the four members of the QUAD, Japan, India, Australia, and the US, revived the QUAD because the argument became that China did not care much about not having the QUAD and the Chinese policies became even more aggressive. So, since 2017, the QUAD has been reinvigorated and what has happened more recently with India and China allows the possibility of the QUAD, that has so far talked of only issues like trade, connectivity, etc. might now also focus on hard power issues, joint military exercises, etc. So, I think QUAD is the natural response to Chinese aggression in the region and its assertiveness because it allows for the possibility that the like-minded countries can join hands and prevent China from becoming the dominant player in the region. 4. Along with this, would you like to comment on current India- Nepal scuffles and hostile situation along the border. Mr. Pant: The situation between India and Nepal has risen out of the peculiar circumstances the Nepalese domestic politics is passing through. Mr. K P Oli, the Nepalese Prime minister is using the India card to generate and mobilize support for himself, so the more he targets India, he thinks he will be able to generate enough support for his continuation as the prime minister. There is the China dimension with its growing role in Nepal, and that has resulted in the peculiar situation where Mr. Oli has brought in areas that were never under contestation in the maps introduced by him. He is also saying strange things that Ram was not born in Ayodhya, the Indian virus is worse than the Chinese virus, etc. The whole attempt is to make a case to the people of Nepal that India is a bad neighbor, and I’m trying to stand up to India and to rally support for himself. This certainly jeopardizes the stability in India- Nepal relationship. It vitiates the atmosphere. It is not only in Nepal but other countries as well where China is leaving its footprint. It makes Indian policies very vulnerable, and that is something that has happened in the past too, there are stages which the Indian neighborhood policy goes through, and there are times when China becomes powerful and there are times when China loses that power. 5. With the current scuffle and hostile relations with its neighbors, what seems like the best approach for India in terms of its foreign policy? Also, will this situation be the right time and opportunity for Pakistan to increase its dominance over Baluchistan? Mr. Pant: The relations India has had with all the neighbors have been historically intense, which won’t change fundamentally, and the fundamentals will remain what they are. With Pakistan, the engagement has always been troubled. India continues to deal with it and has tried to not engage with Pakistan for the last few years, given that Pakistan supports terrorism in India. So, the argument by India is that until and unless Pakistan changes its policy, there is no scope of any engagement, and this policy has continued for the last five years. Also, given that the Pakistani military holds control over Pakistan, I think until something dramatic happens in Pakistan, India-Pakistan relations will continue to be on the same trajectory. As far as the other nations are concerned India is very substantially engaged with the government of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives as well as the countries like Myanmar and Thailand because Indian feels that it needs to invest more in the Bay of Bengal, and the Bay of Bengal community via BIMSTEC needs greater traction and that the Pakistan-India dissonance is better left ignored because of Pakistan’s negative approach to regional security and prosperity, that has not helped India nor has it helped other nations. 6. Are the dynamics of India-China trade relations going to change course and do you feel it's going to be a permanent solution? Won't India suffer greatly? Mr. Pant: India-China relationship has come under a cloud and the relationship is in a free fall. The crisis in the Ladakh, the Galwan valley episode, in particular, has worsened the atmosphere. There is a growing sense among Indian policymakers that dependence on China should be reduced, so what we are now witnessing is that India is walling itself off from China in certain sectors. The FDI rules have become more stringent as far as China is concerned, India is also no longer allowing Chinese companies into government sectors like railways or telecommunications, etc. and critical strategic sectors are being walled off from China. Eventually, India would like sectors like pharmaceuticals to become more independent of China because, at the moment, Chinese imports are an essential role in sustaining our pharmaceutical industry, for example. So, there is a larger issue here that is about reducing dependence on China and how that can be managed. This is not simply about India as there has been a rising demand across the world to re-look at China in terms of its involvement and the dependence on it for trade and economy. This is an inflection point in Sino-Indian ties and New Delhi is clear that it will have to re-evaluate its ties with China across sectors if the border tensions continue to worsen. 7. Our current policy towards the Union Territory of Ladakh and how it has a lack of administration at the moment and the government hasn't taken any initiative to improve the same. What is your take on the matter? Mr. Pant: The former state of Jammu and Kashmir was divided into two union territories, is a policy still in motion because it was a very dramatic decision that was taken last year in August, and that decision is yet, to fully manifest itself. So we are still in a very early stage of how the management of the territories will go forward, which is a difficult decision on multiple dimensions that had to be taken. In Ladakh, the Border issue with China is now all-pervasive. The priority is to get the border issues sorted with China, which have now been going on since March, so clearly, the other issues, especially related to governance, have been overshadowed. My view is that Ladakh has always been relatively peaceful, so when moving forward, I don't see any particular problem in the evolution of an effective governance structure is evolving there. A structure that would also be taking care of the aspirations of the local people, because the people have complained about how they were not given due importance in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. Now that Ladakh is a union territory directly under New Delhi, it will create more opportunities for the people. Although it will take some time for the situation to settle down in both Jammu and Kashmir's side of the equation and Ladakh, and given how tempestuous this situation has been in the last two months, I sense that we are still some way off from the finalization of the issue. 8. The relations between China and Hong Kong have become very complicated after the controversial extradition bill. What would you like to comment on this steadily dwindling state of affairs between the two? Mr. Pant: One thing that we are now experiencing is that China really does not care much about its international obligations, and how the other countries perceive them. They are tearing down all the international treaties, norms, institutions, and frameworks that they had been committed to, or were seen to be committed to at some point in time. Whether, it is in the South China Sea where, they don’t want to abide by the rules and laws of the Sea or whether it is with India where they don’t want to abide by the standard mechanisms on borders, whether it is in the Philippines where they disregarded the judgment which went against them, or whether it is WTO where the country has misused their power, the message is clear that they’re not really interested in a world order which relies on norms, institutions, and frameworks. Similarly, in Hong Kong, they are going back on the commitment that they gave to the people of Hong Kong. The declaration with the United Kingdom in 1997, which resulted in the transfer of power from Britain to China Beijing had committed itself to one country, two systems framework. Hong Kongers were supposed to have greater autonomy and greater freedom to express themselves, greater political rights compared to the mainland. Now what they are doing is that the Chinese Communist Party is intent on taking control over Hong Kong and is tightening its hold which the people of Hong Kong are resisting. So, since last year, it has been going on when they first brought about extradition law, and the people resisted it and made sure that the law was junked. But now they have come back with a stronger National Security Law that gives powers to the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong, and that is something that is going to change the way Hong Kong and its people have had their autonomy and freedom. Therefore, there is a lot of resistance and you see that the other countries have also tried to respond to it. For example, America, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, etc. have all spoken out, and even India spoke out by saying that all the parties and China should manage the situation very carefully. So, clearly, there is a lot of consternation about Chinese behavior around the world because the Chinese seem to think that at the moment they are rising, they don’t need to follow rules, norms, and other institutional procedures. 9. China and the US are moving towards a cold war and are in the middle of a trade war. They recently shut down each other’s consulates as well. What according to you will be its impact on India, in terms of foreign policy, trade, etc. also taking the upcoming US elections into account. Do you think it is time to strengthen the US-India allies?
Mr. Pant: Given where Sino-India relations are today, the India-US relations will naturally improve, significantly. The US and China are passing through a difficult phase. Ordinarily, this would have been problematic for India because a balanced relationship between the US and China allows India to have a more comfortable engagement with both. But this is a particularly difficult time for India, given India’s conflict with China, and a hardened American approach towards China helps India because it releases some pressure from India. So, I think, by and large, a strong China policy and a more robust China policy from Washington in the last few years has helped India and has been good for India. It has allowed India to also engage more substantively with Washington as well as other like-minded countries in the region to create a favorable balance of power. While a Cold War between the US and China ordinarily would have put pressure on India, this time it is perhaps helping India in navigating the tricky terrain with China. There are many other reasons why India-US ties are only likely to grow stronger in the coming years, irrespective of who is in office in Washington and New Delhi, but the rise of China and its growing aggression is clearly one of the most important ones. Image Source- Facebook Interviewer- Sanaa Munjal