A year of tumult has gone by and the coming year will be dominated by the US Presidential elections
My New Year tweet was “Freeze CAA, suspend protests till the Supreme Court verdict and do not derail development and foreign policy. This is the pledge that all Indians should take on New Year Day to save the nation.”
This is a practical way out of the current quagmire in the country. Nothing idealistic, dogmatic or utopian. Quite obviously, there is no hurry to implement CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), protests and destruction of lives and property are pointless and the dawn of the New Year is a good time for contemplation if not for reconciliation.
India appears to be at a cross roads nationally and internationally as we move from the old year to the new. The upheaval in the country is based more on perception than reality. There has also been criticism abroad on some of the measures.
After the highly successful meetings with President Putin in Vladivostok, President Trump in Houston and President Xi in Mamallapuram, India is expecting their long-term impact on bilateral relations with the major powers. This is not the time for taking a holiday from foreign policy.
As a fallout of the internal developments, a proposed visit by the Japanese Prime Minister was postponed because of disturbances in Guwahati. Two Bangladesh Ministers cancelled their visits to India, though the Bangladesh government conceded that the citizenship issue was an internal matter of India. Happily, however, a significant 2+2 meeting of Foreign and Defense Ministers of US and India took place in Washington in December, leading to a number of decisions on defense cooperation and trade.
The global situation continued to be in a flux in 2019, mainly on account of the many game changing actions by President Trump in the previous years. But President Trump himself changed his warlike and aggressive posture to some extent in 2019.
In the cases of North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan he moved away from the option of war and patiently negotiated in each case. Though he did not win the Nobel Peace Prize (it went to the Ethiopian Prime Minister) or even the designation as the Person of the Year (that honour went to climate activist Greta Thunberg) he dominated the global scene for better or for worse.
The New Yorker summarised his deeds in the quiet of Christmas and New Year Eve: “the President of the United States has repeatedly attacked “Crazy Nancy” and her family, inveighed against the “bogus Impeachment Scam” and circulated the alleged name of the C.I.A. whistle-blower whose complaint triggered it, retweeted an account that described former President Barack Obama as “Satan’s Muslim Scum,” hosted the accused war criminal he recently pardoned over the objections of military leaders, and promoted a post calling himself “the best President of all time.”
President Trump became the third President in history to be impeached towards the end of the year. Though there was enough evidence in the Mueller Report to justify impeachment, the Democrats felt that the long impeachment process was a waste and that the focus should be on the 2020 election.
But the Democrats launched the impeachment for a relatively lesser demeanor of making a phone call to the President of Ukraine to investigate the leading Democratic candidate, Joe Biden and his son. The impeachment went as expected and charges were adopted for submission to the Senate. But it is quite certain that the Senate would reject the charges and he will continue as President. There is also a fair chance of Trump getting re-elected in the New Year.
Brexit may be a close second to Trump to be featured in the news in 2019 and two years before that. Prime Minister Theresa May tried her best to bring about an agreement with the EU (European Union), but her own Parliament rejected her efforts, leaving her no option but to resign.
The mercurial Boris Johnson won a decisive victory on a platform that promised Brexit one way or another by the end of January 2020. The Labour Party lost because it did not have a clear alternative to the Johnson formula. But it is by no means certain that Johnson would find a solution by the deadline he has fixed. Even if he does, Scotland and Northern Ireland may demand separation from the UK, leading to the dissolution of the Union. We have not heard the last of Brexit as yet.
The biggest threat of war and the greatest hope of peace came from the Korean Peninsula with two mercurial leaders and a sophisticated President of South Korea exerting their efforts and the Presidents of China and Russia playing supportive roles. At the end of 2019, President Kim remains aggressive, while President Trump remains patient and optimistic. What we really have so far are some historic photographs, devoid of any historic content.
Iran went to the brink of war with the United States, when it defied the efforts of some countries to make Iran abide by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) even after the US withdrew from the deal and imposed severe sanctions. There was an atmosphere of war in 2019, but President Trump himself refrained from any military action. His expectation is that when the sanction begins to work, Iran will return to the negotiating table. But Iran remains defiant and restarted the enrichment plants, which had ceased working.
In the meantime, violent protests have erupted in many cities of Iran. According to Amnesty International, many have been killed in clashes and it is believed that these demonstrations are the most serious after the popular rebellion in 1979. The economic situation is the major concern, but the movement is also building up against the rule of the clergy.
In Hong Kong, protests over the new extradition bill turned into a major movement for freedom and democracy in 2019. Even after six months, the unrest continued, but the expected crackdown from China did not take place. The Chinese authorities have been firm, but restrained.
The idea of one country with two systems has been beneficial to China and China does not seem to want to kill the goose that lays golden eggs. But there is no respite even over Christmas. Protesters moved through the decorated streets forcing closure of shopping malls. Police dispersed crowds using tear gas even on Christmas Day, but there was no crackdown. At the end of the year, there is no indication of the final outcome. Both the protesters and China have not shown any signs of concession.
Pakistan continued its protests over changes in Kashmir and the Citizenship Amendment Act, but there was a lull on the terrorist front and along the Line of Control. Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared to have problems with the army when he proposed an extension to the Army Chief. A number of second level officers protested over the move and a Committee was set up to study the matter of succession of the Army Chief.
The opening of the Kartarpur Corridor was a silver lining, but Pakistani propaganda caused considerable irritation in the relationship. Pakistan failed to line up radical Muslim leaders in Kuala Lumpur and the OIC itself in Riyadh against India and decided to host a meeting in Islamabad itself on Kashmir and CAA.
In Afghanistan, the present President was reelected, but the US initiatives for an alternative government did not make much headway. The US President had pulled out of the negotiations, but authorised further negotiations because of his anxiety to withdraw the US troops.
Good news came from Sri Lanka and Maldives after the election there. Though the Rajapaksa brothers who have come to power have been hostile to India in the past, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa chose India for his first visit abroad and declared political affinity for India and explained that Sri Lanka’s relations with China were essentially economic.
The Maldives President declared that India was his first priority. In both cases, India extended credit lines for various projects, including the fight against terrorism.
India and Nepal have historical ties, but there are challenges which arise from time to time. Internal security is a major concern for India; Indo-Nepal border is virtually open and lightly policed which is exploited by terrorist outfits and insurgent groups from the North Eastern part of India. The trust deficit has widened between India-Nepal because of the Indian reputation for delaying implementation of various projects.
Nepal has witnessed chronic political instability, including a 10-year violent insurgency. There is anti-India feeling among certain ethnic groups in Nepal which emanates from the perception that India indulges too much in Nepal and tinkers with their political sovereignty. The past year witnessed some turbulence, but there is no alternative to friendly relations.
West Asia continued to be volatile, despite reported defeat of the IS forces and the killing of their commander. Protests in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon added to the tension on account of the denial of political rights to Palestine. The Yemen war, sanctions against Qatar and policies of Saudi Arabia were other reasons for disquiet in the region. But India’s relations with the GCC countries and Israel proceeded smoothly in 2019 and are poised to grow in the New Year.
Since the Brexit outcome and the results of the US elections will determine the global configuration of the future, 2020 will be dominated by these events and the consequential readjustments.
The major test for India in the New Year will be how it overcomes the protests over Kashmir and the Citizenship Amendment Act. The government has shown some flexibility, but continued instability in some states will have implications for development and foreign policy. While decisions on domestic issues should not be contingent on acceptance by other countries, India should be aware of their repercussions abroad.
The good work that the Modi Government did in its first term and soon after winning a massive mandate should not be frittered away in internal squabbles which do not contribute to the wellbeing of the people.