.
I

n a recent webinar hosted by The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a panel of three academic and policy experts on South Asia discussed geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific region as it relates to the Biden administration’s foreign policy. While the webinar intended to survey the entire Indo-Pacific region, India quickly dominated the conversation, with the panelists expressing concern that the mid-pandemic policies enacted by India’s prime minister could mark a turning point in the democratic nature of the country’s government.  

“It has been, in one word, shambolic,” said Professor Sumit Ganguly about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handling of the pandemic. Ganguly, a professor at Indiana University, explained that Modi imposed a twenty-one-day lockdown with only four hours’ notice in March of 2020. This decision left many of India’s 100 million migrant workers stranded without transportation or support from the government. “While it did limit the spread of the virus initially, it came at an extraordinary human cost,” said Ganguly.

Beyond those twenty-one days, the country remained unprepared, Ganguly added, as Modi failed to stockpile PPE, ventilators, and other supplies critical for the success of the health sector.

As case numbers continued to rise, Modi attended––and at times organized––massive in-person campaign rallies to support his political party, the BJP, in the months before April’s legislative assembly elections. Moreover, Modi refused to cancel April’s Kumbh Mela festival in New Delhi, where tens of thousands of Hindus convened in close quarters.

In early May of 2021, India experienced a record-setting spike of COVID-19 cases

But however disastrous Modi’s handling of the pandemic was, Modi is unlikely to face competition during the 2024 elections, according to Kenneth Juster, the former U.S. Ambassador to India under the Trump administration. “On the national level, Modi does not have any rival,” Juster said. 

In fact, the panelists suggested that there will be no legitimate national threat to Modi and the BJP anytime soon. Rather, they speculated that the increased threshold of power afforded to Modi under the pandemic will continue even as case numbers decline. “There is a streak of illiberalism that had long existed in Indian political culture but that was mostly dormant," Ganguly said. "Now, those furies have been unleashed.” 

Beyond this point, Ganguly expressed the fear that any “countervailing forces” against Modi will not be powerful enough to rein in the government’s executive power to pre-pandemic levels.

Although India remained the primary focus of the webinar, the conversation expanded at times to other South Asian countries, and their roles in the Indian government’s decision-making process. 

Commenting on the role of the India-Pakistan rivalry in the pandemic, Shamila Chaudhary, president of the American Pakistan Foundation, said that “it has unveiled how poor governance, bad relationships, and great power competition can actually further the negative effects of a pandemic.” She referred specifically to refugee flows in and out of Pakistan as an issue intensifying the pandemic in India.

Despite these concerns about India’s government, there was consensus among the panel that the U.S.-India relationship will not become antagonistic; the growing threat of China has pushed them to be “strategic partners,” noted Juster.

Juster elaborated on this characterization, mentioning that an indicator of a strong relationship between the United States and India is the continued conversation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) in both the Trump and the Biden administrations. This dialogue––notably not a formal military alliance––proposes a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. It includes four countries: the United States, India, Japan, and Australia. 

In October of 2020, foreign ministers from each country in the Quad convened in response to China’s expansionist posture in the Indo-Pacific region. Four months earlier, Juster explained, violence had broken out between China and India in the Galwan Valley, a contested stretch of land along their shared border where India had begun infrastructure development. Chinese and Indian troops exchanged gunfire in a series of skirmishes. The incident has since been disengaged but not deescalated. 

“This was part of China––post the immediate outbreak of Covid, where they felt they had gotten the leg-up on the rest of the world––flexing its muscles, and trying to, in my view, indicate that it’s the main player in the region and maybe demonstrate some dismay at India’s increasing closeness with the United States,” said Juster. 

In the only evident moment of disagreement among the panelists, Ganguly corrected Juster’s interpretation. He emphasized that China’s stationing of troops was not merely a demonstration of dismay, but rather “a clear message to India not to get too close to the United States.”

Ironically, the panelists noted that China’s message has driven India closer to the United States. They anticipate that India will continue collaboration with the United States by accepting an invitation to Biden’s envisioned global summit of democracy.

But despite the growing strategic partnership between the United States and India, Juster hushed any speculation that the Quad will become a formal military alliance. In his opinion, any change in the Quad is something that India will have to initiate: “It’ll have to evolve slowly and, quite frankly, at the pace at which the Indians are comfortable with relative to the situation in China.”

About
Thomas Plant
:
Thomas Plant is a student at the College of William & Mary pursuing a BA in International Relations and Hispanic Studies. He is a founding co-director for DisinfoLab, an undergraduate research lab at W&M.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Will the Pandemic Change Indian Politics?

Photo by Parth Vyas via Unsplash.

June 23, 2021

Academics and policy experts focused on South Asia are increasingly concerned that India's government is turning away from democratic institutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Modi government taking on additional powers during the crisis that it is unlikely to relinquish.

I

n a recent webinar hosted by The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a panel of three academic and policy experts on South Asia discussed geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific region as it relates to the Biden administration’s foreign policy. While the webinar intended to survey the entire Indo-Pacific region, India quickly dominated the conversation, with the panelists expressing concern that the mid-pandemic policies enacted by India’s prime minister could mark a turning point in the democratic nature of the country’s government.  

“It has been, in one word, shambolic,” said Professor Sumit Ganguly about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handling of the pandemic. Ganguly, a professor at Indiana University, explained that Modi imposed a twenty-one-day lockdown with only four hours’ notice in March of 2020. This decision left many of India’s 100 million migrant workers stranded without transportation or support from the government. “While it did limit the spread of the virus initially, it came at an extraordinary human cost,” said Ganguly.

Beyond those twenty-one days, the country remained unprepared, Ganguly added, as Modi failed to stockpile PPE, ventilators, and other supplies critical for the success of the health sector.

As case numbers continued to rise, Modi attended––and at times organized––massive in-person campaign rallies to support his political party, the BJP, in the months before April’s legislative assembly elections. Moreover, Modi refused to cancel April’s Kumbh Mela festival in New Delhi, where tens of thousands of Hindus convened in close quarters.

In early May of 2021, India experienced a record-setting spike of COVID-19 cases

But however disastrous Modi’s handling of the pandemic was, Modi is unlikely to face competition during the 2024 elections, according to Kenneth Juster, the former U.S. Ambassador to India under the Trump administration. “On the national level, Modi does not have any rival,” Juster said. 

In fact, the panelists suggested that there will be no legitimate national threat to Modi and the BJP anytime soon. Rather, they speculated that the increased threshold of power afforded to Modi under the pandemic will continue even as case numbers decline. “There is a streak of illiberalism that had long existed in Indian political culture but that was mostly dormant," Ganguly said. "Now, those furies have been unleashed.” 

Beyond this point, Ganguly expressed the fear that any “countervailing forces” against Modi will not be powerful enough to rein in the government’s executive power to pre-pandemic levels.

Although India remained the primary focus of the webinar, the conversation expanded at times to other South Asian countries, and their roles in the Indian government’s decision-making process. 

Commenting on the role of the India-Pakistan rivalry in the pandemic, Shamila Chaudhary, president of the American Pakistan Foundation, said that “it has unveiled how poor governance, bad relationships, and great power competition can actually further the negative effects of a pandemic.” She referred specifically to refugee flows in and out of Pakistan as an issue intensifying the pandemic in India.

Despite these concerns about India’s government, there was consensus among the panel that the U.S.-India relationship will not become antagonistic; the growing threat of China has pushed them to be “strategic partners,” noted Juster.

Juster elaborated on this characterization, mentioning that an indicator of a strong relationship between the United States and India is the continued conversation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) in both the Trump and the Biden administrations. This dialogue––notably not a formal military alliance––proposes a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. It includes four countries: the United States, India, Japan, and Australia. 

In October of 2020, foreign ministers from each country in the Quad convened in response to China’s expansionist posture in the Indo-Pacific region. Four months earlier, Juster explained, violence had broken out between China and India in the Galwan Valley, a contested stretch of land along their shared border where India had begun infrastructure development. Chinese and Indian troops exchanged gunfire in a series of skirmishes. The incident has since been disengaged but not deescalated. 

“This was part of China––post the immediate outbreak of Covid, where they felt they had gotten the leg-up on the rest of the world––flexing its muscles, and trying to, in my view, indicate that it’s the main player in the region and maybe demonstrate some dismay at India’s increasing closeness with the United States,” said Juster. 

In the only evident moment of disagreement among the panelists, Ganguly corrected Juster’s interpretation. He emphasized that China’s stationing of troops was not merely a demonstration of dismay, but rather “a clear message to India not to get too close to the United States.”

Ironically, the panelists noted that China’s message has driven India closer to the United States. They anticipate that India will continue collaboration with the United States by accepting an invitation to Biden’s envisioned global summit of democracy.

But despite the growing strategic partnership between the United States and India, Juster hushed any speculation that the Quad will become a formal military alliance. In his opinion, any change in the Quad is something that India will have to initiate: “It’ll have to evolve slowly and, quite frankly, at the pace at which the Indians are comfortable with relative to the situation in China.”

About
Thomas Plant
:
Thomas Plant is a student at the College of William & Mary pursuing a BA in International Relations and Hispanic Studies. He is a founding co-director for DisinfoLab, an undergraduate research lab at W&M.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.