The situation looks particularly bleak right now - India is nowhere near flattening the coronavirus curve, there are horrifying - if anecdotal - reports of doctors not having enough protective equipment, communalization in the name of the virus is rampant, and we’re yet to see the fallout of the exodus of labourers back to the hinterland. And that’s not even taking into account all that’s happened pre-pandemic: economic issues, riots, rampant corruption, suppressed media and sycophantic polity - not exactly the ideal ingredients in a bid for superpowerdom.
But crises of the scale of the pandemic we’re living through have a way of shaking things up, pressing reset, fast-tracking innovation and culling bureaucracy - even if they are for survival rather than for capitalization. These changes can leave countries better off than they were, pre-crisis. It’s ironic, but a lot of today’s best-developed countries have a crisis to thank at some level, rather than “good times”. This could be partially because the latter is more conducive to doing things that serve a narrow set of the population rather than society at large : Think the technology boom of the last ten years, which has made founders and shareholders unbelievably wealthy while leaving the worker force worse off. A crisis universalizes innovation.
The poster boy of this is the United States during World War 2. While there’s no doubt the country suffered massive damage (it lost over 400,000 people and $4 trillion in today’s money), many of the efforts set in place during the war paid off handsomely in the long run, such as the establishment of new factories to help companies fast-track production of war supplies. Innovations spawned during this time from the country include synthetic rubber, jet engines and duct tape. After the war, the US continued to invest in military science, with a division called DARPA whose greatest invention was not exactly one built for war - the internet. So yes, in a way, you have World War 2 to thank for the internet and all that it gave us.
The UK itself has one of the best publicly-funded healthcare systems in the world, the NHS, which itself evolved from the Emergency Health Service set up during WW2, which itself can be traced back to the Committee on Physical Deterioration set up in 1903 following a dismal performance in the Second Boer War.
There are other examples too. Japan’s oft-quoted “postwar miracle” was thanks to a smart reallocation of labour from the low-productivity agricultural sector to the non-agricultural sector, turning the beleaguered nation into a technological powerhouse in the latter part of the 20th century. Even the black death reduced income inequalities, and cities that ramped up public health infrastructure during the swine flu were better off during and after that pandemic. Why, if you look closer to home, Indore went from being one of the filthiest to the cleanest cities in India thanks to excellent infrastructure and policies put in place during the crisis.
Which is a nice way to segue back to India, now. There’s no doubt we’re going to see a lot of virus-inflicted pain in the short term, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a terrific chance of realising his purported dream of making India a superpower and cementing his legacy. This can be done with the right moves now - and there is a lot of historical inspiration on offer.
Firstly - there’s the potential to ramp up manufacturing. During the War, the FD Roosevelt administration incentivized companies by promising to buy the output of new factories, and offering an 8% margin - moves that turned the country into a manufacturing powerhouse post-war, making global icons out of those companies. The same could happen here. India and the world have a shortage of medical supplies such as PPEs and ventilators. A lot of business owners are ready to repurpose assets to help and a push from the government would help not just the fight against the virus, but would help participating firms in the future more than symbolic tax rate cuts. After this crisis, the world will seek recovery and will need a lot of things India already has capability for - automobiles, apparel, consumer electronics, food and beverages, and chemicals. Priming ourselves now would put us in an advantageous position off the bat when the inevitable recovery starts. Now that would be a way to give a shot in the arm to the Make In India initiative, beyond pointless photo-ops and soundbytes.
Secondly, it is a chance to become a medical research hub - a title erstwhile not claimed by any one country. Even with limitations, our pharma sector has been able to achieve a remarkable lot - and the new age of companies working on biotechnology points to a positive future. Over-investment in this sector will reap rich dividends later, especially as we’ve been warned of more global pandemics and it’s likely the world will spend more on healthcare in the future.
Third, the mass migration of workers to the countryside might not necessarily be a bad thing. For once, the hinterland has, at the same time, ample talent, brains and brawn. Given how terribly urban India has treated them, it’s not inconceivable that a lot of them might not want to make the return journey and choose to stay put, setting up smaller businesses near home. Now that there's a workforce available desperate to get back to work, it’s a golden opportunity for state governments to facilitate investments and truly develop these areas. Corporates who have perfunctory “improve rural lives” slides as part of their CSR Powerpoints can now walk the talk. They only stand to benefit in the future. With improved economic prospects in smaller cities, it’s also quite likely some reverse osmosis might happen and urban dwellers, frustrated with city life, would migrate themselves - a truly ironic and poetic ending! This is not unprecedented - in the US, those burnt out by Silicon Valley are migrating to smaller cities and starting up there. This will also end up improving rural infrastructure which has its own snowball effect, especially if viewed in conjunction with the potential shot in the arm manufacturing could get.
Sticking with the much-ignored “bottom of the pyramid”, a metaphorical “teaching them how to fish” approach could go a long way in the future: Investing in upskilling and primary education, along with the appetite for entrepreneurship could pay off massively for the country in the long run.
And so it’s true of many other sectors. Already a global leader in renewable technology adoption, we stand to export expertise and cheaper solar panels. If we perfect Intercontinental Grids, we could sell surplus energy from our vast renewable resources to other countries via cables, further aiding diplomacy (yes, we could become a ‘power power’) and improving our standing in fighting the war against climate change, a crown desperately seeking a head to sit on.
India is uniquely placed in many ways for all of the above - we have a large ambitious population, we have managed to maintain diplomatic ties with many potential buyers, and we have a large diaspora that could act as our ambassadors and sales agents. All this comes at a time when the traditional superpowers are either in self-imposed decline (USA) or viewed with fear and suspicion (China). India by and large has a positive reputation abroad, Modi’s communal tendencies being the only sore point in international coverage.
But more importantly , India doesn’t look like it’s going to see a leadership change anytime soon. Yes, I am an avowed Modi critic and not a fan of his more authoritarian leanings, but even I have to admit his hold on power for the foreseeable future could be an advantage. Normally, politicians are loath to kick-starting long-term projects whose completion and benefits might accrue to someone else, post their tenures. Here, Modi has a good chance to institute several reforms that could come to fruition by 2029 - the next time he could realistically be challenged at the center, given the spinelessness and invisibility of national opposition.
Last year, during his election rally, Narendra Modi said that only he and his party, the BJP, have the potential to make India a superpower. Now, thanks to a bizarre set of circumstances, he has the opportunity to prove himself right.
If only though, he could turn his attention away from rhetoric, optics, Islamophobia, statues, vilifying intellectuals and academicians, stifling free speech, attacking journalists, pillaging natural resources, delegitimizing science and helping cronies.
Deepak ‘Chuck’ Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and marketing guy who lives in Mumbai. He runs two podcasts (Simblified, The Origin Of Things) and a satire newsletter (The Third Slip). He used to work in advertising till his soul couldn't take it anymore, and now spends all his time annoying his cats, listening to prog-metal, cycling and writing bios of himself in third person. He has an irrational love for cold water and Tabasco.
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