The Wolf at Our Door
We the People of India have the Corona Wolf at our door. It has come all the way from Wuhan to devastate us. There is nowhere to hide. We must fight this battle alone – as individuals, as localities, as communities, as states and India, as a country. One for all and all for one - in true fashion as a billion plus Musketeers. I, the Indian will have to fight for India my country. India, my country will have to fight for me. In fighting this virus from China we are fighting for each other to free ourselves from a pestilence, gain Strategic Independence and Global Leadership simultaneously. In fact whether we are Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Sikh or whatever else, we have no choice. Whether we are from BJP, Congress, DMK, Trinamool or AAP or whatever, is a matter of irrelevance. Corona does not discriminate. We must all fight together and for each other – rich or poor. We have 21 days to do so. We must and we can.
India’s Tradition of Gaining Independence
As a great democracy, we fought for our political independence and gained it against heavy odds in 1947. We gained independence from famine and hunger through the Green Revolution and Operation Flood to ensure our food security. We led the world in eradication of polio and smallpox to achieve health Independance. We gained a measure of economic and financial Independence in the IT revolution of the 90s. Despite being threatened and devastated repeatedly by natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and hurricanes we gained a degree of independence from natural disasters post the Tsunami of 2004. We have achieved some independence in scientific affairs due to our successes in space, atomic energy and missile technologies. This fight which we are undertaking now against the corona virus will be a long one.
In every disaster there is an opportunity. We can look at it as the end of the world or as an opportunity to attain strategic independence which we never had. I prefer to do the latter. In the short term we will fight to ward of the death and devastation that this deadly virus can wreak. In the long term COVID will set our economy further back in an already financially bad situation. Mere rebounding back to where it all began is no more an option. We must not shy away from the long haul towards rebuilding our economy by taking focused steps to attain strategic independence. The consequences of not understanding this and consequently not doing something will be disastrous.
The 21 Day Fight
In my previous article I had mentioned that I have put my foot in the mouth to state that as a nation we started our preparation to ward of the Virus and are ahead of the curve. My foot remains in my mouth. We have approached the curve. It is very sharp, but we are negotiating it at our terms. As our Honorable PM has said – the next 21 days will be a test of our patience and discipline. It will be a decisive fight. I have no doubt that we will come out of it better than most. Of course, we will get hit. We will have losses. The numbers could be large. Our resources are few. All these are known. We, in India, are experienced in braving bad situations.
Numerous disasters have taught us to weather tougher times. We are battle hardened. We have our composite culture irrespective of caste creed or religion, ingrained in us. It has taught us and weaponized us with social distancing from childhood. If we get back to our fundamental Indian cultures; we are fully armed to fight the Virus. This is not only for 21 days or a little more but much beyond that. As a people we can come out better after this. In order to be successful, we must protect the poor, the weak, the unorganized and the old. We must empower them with the knowledge of the enemy and provide them material wherewithal needed to fight it.
No matter the cost. We must energize all channels for it – Direct Benefit Transfer, Jan Dhan Yojna, MNREGA, PM KISAN or any other. We need to also understand that there are no defined fronts in this battle. The Corona Wolf from Wuhan is all around and waiting to get into our lungs to squeeze our lives out one by one. Each one of us is in battle, fighting the Virus individually. We are the front. The government is helping us to stay and fight with the available resources at its disposal.
If some of us become causalities, our doctors will fight their battles to take care of us and put us back in the battlefield. We must simply follow the orders of our governments unwaveringly with discipline, discipline and discipline. Each of us are warriors to fight this scourge. How we fight this battle will also dictate how our governments and health care providers help us defeat the Chinese Virus. We must not overwhelm the limited resources we have by straying from the path. This is our battle – yours and mine.
We simply fight it in a ‘as is where is’ situation. When the whole thing is over every Indian will be a soldier. Note. He has gone to battle well led and poorly armed. He will emerge victorious and poor, but with his head held high. All I will say is welcome to the world of soldiering. That is how I felt for four decades. Time to fight folks. Bring it on!
Economically we were in doldrums even before the Virus hit us. Our bankers, financiers’, economists in concert with shady and crooked politicians aided by conniving regulators were skinning us behind fancy schemes. This Virus has only worsened things. Our financial markets have tanked. Peoples life savings have been wiped out over the past couple of years. It is not because our industry is bad, or our economic fundamentals are weak. It is just because our corrupt financial whizzes did not show liver.
These shifty and slick guys are sending us into battle against a deadly virus without the comfort of a strong economy. It takes us back to 1971 when a poor India went into the Bangladesh war with hardly any national wherewithal. Despite that, we stood fast when the US 7th Fleet threatened to sail into the Bay of Bengal. The Post War days were hell economically. We are in a similar situation now, we will fight. We went into a globalization overdrive and started losing ground on our strategic independence.
On another note, when we started importing even ‘Made in China’ Ganesh idols, we were not only losing our economy but hocking our cultural independence. Slowly we became dependent on the Chinese for everything since it was cheap. They ultimately gave us and the rest of the world a costly Virus as a free add on. The first thing we need to do beyond the crisis is to decouple ourselves from the Chinese and bring parity in a planned manner over a defined time period. Both these will take us back to the Hindu Growth rates of the yore for some time. We are talking of growth rates of 3-4%. So be it. Let us tighten our belt and crunch down. Do the right thing for the nation and ourselves.
Our response to the situation beyond the Virus must be two-fold. Firstly take steps towards Strategic Independence. Secondly take advantage of the international decoupling from China. There is no doubt that there is already a clear view that China cannot be the sole manufacturing hub and the supply chain base for the world. The world needs trustworthy and transparent alternatives beyond a predatory and opaque China.
We must take resolute steps to be that alternative. Already some steps have been announced in the Pharma and Electronics sector. We need to expand it beyond that. Our handling of this Virus and limiting the damage will be the determinant to put us in a pole position and take advantage of the opportunity. Our handling of this Virus successfully will also put us in a global leadership role. So a lot is at stake for our futures.
Steppingstones of Strategic Independence
I have been repeatedly talking of gaining Strategic Independence. We will gain Strategic Independence when we are self-sufficient in defense, health, water, energy and information security. Self-sufficiency in defence is the prime requisite for Strategic Independence. It involves reducing imports significantly. This has not happened despite the clarion call of Make In India. On the other hand defense imports have increased. A serious relook is mandated.
For instance, why are we contemplating import of nearly 1500 guns from abroad when we have four modern indigenous varieties to choose from? A major part of self-sufficiency in defense revolves around getting hold of disruptive technologies like Robotics and unmanned systems, AI, cyber, GIS, information warfare, additive manufacturing, and electronic warfare. This crisis has clearly indicated that our health services are woefully short for a population of our size. It encompasses health care professionals, pharmaceuticals and health equipment.
We can turn this around to make India an International health care destination. We can export health also. In doing so, capacities will be automatically increased. We are a water stressed nation. Slowly we are heading the Pakistan way to water scarcity. If that happens our economic security and food security will be put to risk. This is the right time to actualize some of our river linking plans. As far as Indus Water Treaty is concerned, it is almost mandatory to put in infrastructure to draw our legal share of the eastern river waters. India is an energy deficient nation with heavy dependence on fossil fuels.
It is time to take resolute steps toward ensuring energy security through alternate methods and using the Thorium cycle for nuclear energy. Afterall we have the highest reserves of Thorium in the world lying unutilized on the beaches of Kerala. Lastly, we are an IT superpower with surplus of information and data. We need a strong Information Security system. With the kind of Cyber Warfare capabilities that China is developing we need to first ask Huawei and ZTE to leave. Thereafter develop our own systems. Even if it is 4G it is ok since it is better to have a secure 4G rather than a leaky Chinese 5G. If data is the new gold, we need to monetize data and information.
I am outlining the securities which we need to seek even though we are almost in a survival battle against COVID 19. The reason is that the lockdown of 21 days also gives us the space to think and plan ahead. Very importantly if we strive to attain these securities, we will also be undertaking economic activities to set right our system. Most importantly, attaining strategic independence will enable us to face the season of deglobalization which is now going to come up. We have to fend for ourselves not only now but for a long time to come in future.
The Corona Virus will reset the international geopolitical scene. It has exposed our enemies and adversaries fully. They are no more in the shadows posing as friends or foes. It will also change their status significantly. More on our adversaries when things evolve enough for an assessment after some stabilization. Most importantly it will open new opportunities if we are ready to grab them. A few things are clear as they are emerging. India will have a central role in the Indo Pacific Region and its standing in world affairs will significantly change. If we handle COVID well, I do not see any reason as to why we will not walk onto the high table. Also let me make another foot in the mouth prediction. Pakistan, our bete noire will fade under the multiple impact of COVID, Economic Burdens and Water Scarcity. Sweeping changes are afoot.
Lastly. Where does my belief come from? When in NDC in 2009, a Portuguese lady working in the UN Commission for Refugees believed India was already a superpower. Not because it had the military or economic might. But because it had a capacity beyond that, to be human, inclusive and acceptable to the world. She was talking of a power beyond the normal. I saw this power again today. It needed draconian measures and an iron hand to impose a lock down in China. It took only an honest and passionate appeal from a democratically elected leader to keep 1.25 billion people at home. As I had said earlier, well prepared is half done. Let us all finish off the other half of this pesky virus. Time to stay within the Laxman Rekha and kill the demon called COVID from Wuhan.
Lieutenant General P R Shankar (Retd) was India's DG Artillery. He is a highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Dept of IIT Madras.