No one will regret the passing of 2021, but will the New Year be any better? Omicron, the latest mutant of Covid-19 is out there and spreading even as the Delta variety continues to rattle.
The world economy which showed signs of survival will again take a hit as another bout of the pandemic is hitting Europe and the USA and ready to strike Asian countries. The one ray of hope is the belief that the virus is gradually losing its potency, as Omicron so far has led to lesser hospitalisation and deaths. But no one is certain of the direction the virus will take.
The last two years have shown that the pandemic is a great leveller. It struck every country with equal ferocity. The advanced world with its much better health infrastructure was brought to its knees, as were the developing and poorer nations with a modicum of health facilities. It proved in the end to be a great equaliser as the health facilities across the world collapsed : whether it was Italy, the US, Japan, UK, Russia, China or India, Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Liberal values went out of the window as the rich nations collected more than their share of vaccines, and left developing countries in Africa and Asia to fend for themselves. Israel, UK and parts of America not just gave the two jabs but went on to provide booster doses. Yet many in the African continent had not received a single one.
But the complacency was shattered with the arrival of Omicron, first detected in the Southern Africa countries. The advanced world responded with travel bans from eight African nations from where the virus was detected. Protectionist barriers were drawn up by governments across the world, through travel bans, with little overall effect. It is impossible in today’s inter-connected world to isolate the virus through travel bans.
The pandemic should have taught world leaders some life lessons, with everyone putting their heads together to fight the virus and its deadly economic consequences. The breakdown of supply chains, so far largely dependent on China, has led to shortages across the manufacturing world. Alternative supply chains are not yet in place and will take time to build.
Despite the health crisis, and accompanying economic downturn across the world, big power rivalry continues unabated.
The US, the world’s only superpower, is being challenged by a confident China ready to assert the Chinese way on the world. Though China is not anywhere close to the US in military terms, yet the next decade could see it closing the gap quickly. China-US rivalry will continue. Unlike in the past when the Soviet Union and the US shared superpower status, Russia may have had both the nuclear and military clout but was never a major economic power unlike China.
The decoupling of the US and Chinese economy may take time and create problems for the rest of the world as well. The supply chain breakdown is already changing the way countries look at business.
Globalisation with manufacturers looking for the cheapest and most efficient way to produce goods will take a hit. Gradually production processes will go back to home soil or look for places closer home to invest. The pandemic has brought into question the ideals that ruled the world since the end of World War 11. And that is reflected not just in the economic sphere but in the push-back against liberal politics.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin is another Western bug-bear. The American liberals with the memory of the Cold War very much in place hate Putin and see him as a major threat to Europe. Putin is disliked by the liberal establishment much more than China’s Xi Jinping. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 put Russia in the doghouse for the US and its allies. The fact that NATOs push towards Poland, Ukraine and other former countries of the Soviet Bloc is of major concern to Russia, as these impinge on Russia’s security.
The amassing of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine has led to fears of Moscow taking over that country. Tension has been building up in Ukraine ever since. Putin and US President Joe Biden will speak on the phone on Thursday to hopefully diffuse the crisis. NATO and EU are firmly backing the US against Russia, something that may not have been possible with Donald Trump.
What is India’s place in this new formation of a China-Russia axis opposed to the US-led Western democratic alliance.? India has been playing footsie with both the US and Russia. So far Prime Minister Narendra Modi has succeeded in having his cake and eating it too. As is well known, US wants India as a bulwark in Asia against a rising China. India is part of the quad and firmly in the US camp as far as China goes. But it is also a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a group where Russia and China call the shots.
New Delhi a traditional allay of Russia is not about to abandon an old friendship which had served it well since independence. So far it has succeeded but how far can it maintain its strategic autonomy when push comes to shove in a crisis is not known. But China remains a major concern and will be so till the border issue is finally resolved, but that will take time.
Narendra Modi’s government has so far managed to conduct its foreign policy well, ramping up ties with the Gulf as well as Central Asian powers. Its one failure has been Afghanistan where successive governments had backed the elected US backed government of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. Now with the Taliban in control India’s footprints are all but erased from Afghanistan. Yet this cycle can change when the international community recognizes the Taliban government and India’s development aid may turn things around for the better.
However, of much more concern for India is its domestic politics impinging on its foreign relations. The fringe elements within the Hindutva movement are coming to the fore. The hate speeches made by religious leaders calling for action against Indian Muslims, the incidents of assault on churches reported from several corners of the country.
These incidents have been widely reported by the international media and will catch the attention of world leaders. This disturbing trend will be amplified if the government does not rein in its hardline support base. India has already slipped in the Freedom House ratings as a country which was ``free’’ to ``partially free.’’
Press freedom, the frequent use of the sedition and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the impunity with which the armed forces act in Kashmir and the north east thanks to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, does not do justice to India’s democratic credentials.
But democracy and human rights is slipping not just in India but across the world, including the US. The Trump years mainstreamed the fringe elements in the US resulting in the unprecedented attack on the US capitol by Trump supporters on January 6.
Laws are also being put in place in Republican controlled states to make voting difficult for Blacks and other minorities, the backbone of the Democratic Party. But there is also a massive push back from liberals resulting in polarisation across party lines in the US. The tug-of-war between the Right and the Left will continue across the developed world into the next year.