Would it be an exaggeration to assert that the year 2020 may actually be recorded by history as the breakout year for New India? First consider the evidence in favour of the proposition before we debate the validity of the assertion.
Not since the Spanish Flu a century ago has the world been tested like it has been in the year 2020, which is drawing to a close today. How did India face up to the COVID-19 pandemic? As of 30 December 2020, India has recorded per million 7,404 cases and 107 deaths.
The equivalent numbers for G-7 countries: USA — 60,757 and 1,054; UK — 35,745 and 1,066; Germany — 20,389 and 395; Italy — 34,488 and 1,218; France — 39,796 and 985 and Canada — 15,069 and 407. Only Japan among the developed countries has fared better than India in controlling the deadly virus. But given India’s sheer size, diversity and openness, India’s feat is even more remarkable.
However, India was not supposed to manage relatively well if one went by the commentary in the western press in the early months of this year.
In fact, there was an almost undisguised glee among the more extreme left publications as they predicted, rather recklessly, staggering death numbers and India’s almost predestined failure given its basic health services infrastructure compared to western countries. How did it then all turn out so differently?
As Ratan Tata, India’s most respected industrialist, recently said, it owes in substantial part to the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who did not dither in crisis but was decisive. Modi first put his famed communication skills and political capital to affect one of the greatest experiments in behavioural change in the quickest possible time.
More than a billion people came together in a voluntary Janta Curfew (self-observed lockdown) on a mere appeal by Modi. The behavioural change messaging — of maintaining social distancing, using sanitisers, and wearing masks — that would otherwise have taken weeks and months to percolate down to the last mile, through traditional communication models, was done within hours. The actual lockdown was enforced when India had just above 500 cases.
It was this decisive action that prevented India from ever entering the exponential growth phase of the virus and therefore containing both the actual number of cases and well as the death rates. And it was the successful and sustained behavioural change induced at a subcontinental level, that has prevented a second spike in India unlike the experience in the developed world.
India’s manufacturing and research ability
But it is not only in controlling the spread of the COVID-19 virus that India has set a benchmark model. During the early months that the world struggled to cope with the deadly impact of the virus, India’s manufacturing and research ability became the source for prophylactic drugs, PPE Kits, ventilators and several vaccine candidates.
As the word awaits the global vaccination drive in 2021, it will again be India that will act as the factory for world’s supplies of affordable, transportable and reliable vaccines.
But had it only been the response to the pandemic, albeit stellar, that defined India in 2020 then the assertion of this being New India’s breakout year would surely have been exaggerated. So, what other evidence is there to back up this claim? Consider the following five, seemingly separate but intertwined events.
First, even while the COVID-19 was at its peak, which in itself was more than enough to sap the energies of any nation, India was also simultaneously battling on another front — on the Western borders with China.
Second, within a year of abrogating Article 370, India held successful and peaceful local body elections in Kashmir which saw record turnouts and deepening of democratic representation. The importance of peaceful, transparent, fair and orderly conduct of democratic elections should never be underestimated as the continuing questions around the US Presidential elections demonstrate.
In case of J&K, it is even more creditable since these were first elections held after the change in the constitutional status of the region. The enthusiastic participation of the people, the breadth of participation, the emergence of BJP as the single largest party in the state and its acceptance in the Kashmir Valley, all point towards a new normal now firmly established in the region.
Third, even while facing such a challenging year, India brought itself together to enact some of the most long-term impactful economic reforms. The four labour codes and the three Farm Laws stand out. These two reforms have been debated for now almost three decades but it was the Modi government which completed all the consultation processes and enacted these reforms.
Revolutionary farm laws
The Farm laws are particularly revolutionary, for they empower over 150 million Indian farmers to now be the master of their own destinies. Other reforms such as structural push towards privatisation, commercial coal mining and an acclaimed new National Education Policy add to the impressive list of reforms that were long pending but were all finally done this year.
Fourth, even while the world economy, including India’s, was under extreme stress, the confidence of global investors in the Indian market did not dip, but in fact strengthened.
During the first six months of the Indian financial year (April-September), India attracted $39.6 billion in FDI, which is 15% higher as compared to the same period the previous year which itself was a record year for highest FDI ever. Despite the severe dislocation caused by the COVID-19 induced lockdown, the confidence of the global investors in the Indian story is indicative of a structural adjustment which is resilient enough to withstand temporary shocks, no matter how severe. Such resilience and the confidence the investor community has posed in India’s manufacturing story, as the electronics PLI scheme proved, portends well for the future.
Fifth and above all, the ‘Spirit of the Indian People’ demonstrated across the board.
Be it the soldier in the Galwan valley, or a dedicated front line health worker in medical facility; be it the research scientists who came up with a vaccine in record time or the thousands of MSMEs that came together to make India a PPE exporting hub; be it the farmer who again delivered a record crop or the election official who ensured free and fair elections in every nook and corner of the country — they all demonstrated what is now the best of New India.
A spirit which does not go quietly into the night or vanishes without a fight. As if on cue, the Indian Cricket team, a microcosm of the energies of India of today, emphatically put this new spirit across in Australia in the just concluded Melbourne Test.
The phrase ‘New India’ was first coined by Prime Minister Modi in 2017. It has taken some doing to give it a concrete shape but history may record that 2020 may be the year when the ‘Idea of New India’ finally took flight.