As people return home from distant lands, global value chains get disrupted and cross-border movement comes to a grinding halt, new theories are being propounded about the end of globalisation and the return of the all-pervasive “nanny state”. This is not surprising, given that a commonplace watchword of the era of globalisation has always been that while “all economics is global, all politics is local”. Governments, democratic and authoritarian, can only act locally even against global threats, unless they cross borders to challenge such a threat. Even governments wedded to the ideology of laissez-faire have been forced to act in response to local pressures of one kind or another.
A public health crisis caused by a rapidly spreading virus has naturally sounded a “call to arms” for governments, just as in 2008-09 a financial crisis with global contagion effects also mobilised governments. In 2008-09 it was an essentially “Trans-Atlantic” financial crisis that forced governments around the world to act locally to insulate themselves. This time it is a “Eurasian” epidemic, so to speak, that is forcing governments around the world to act locally. The only difference, however, is that, in 2008-09, there was greater commitment to multilaterally deal with a financial crisis on the part of the Group of 20 nations than is as yet on display today. Hopefully, the initiative taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to mobilise the G-20 will encourage a more purposeful multilateral response. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, some in India have begun writing the obituary of India’s globalisation and hailing the virtues of inward-oriented nationalism.
Much of the “touch-me-not” and “social distancing” narrative encouraged by fear of pandemics plays into the ideology of inward-looking, sectarian nationalism that right-wing governments across the world have been promoting. Political movements that have been opposed to cross-border migration are using the scare generated by Covid-19 to seal borders and stop travel. Admittedly, this is needed as a short-term measure to arrest, or at least reduce, the pace of transmission of the virus. However, to imagine that the current episode marks a turning point for globalisation of people and economies is not just an historically ill-informed view but also a self-defeating one. Mankind has faced many such challenges posed by nature and other species but has continued to move, co-habit and populate around the world. Political and administrative barriers to the natural movement of people are creations of the 20th century.
Consider the example of the Indian state that has had the highest incidence of Covid-19 and the best response to it — Kerala. It is one of India’s most globalised economies that depends on services and commodity export, labour migration and tourism. Can Kerala afford to shut its borders to the world? Hardly. While Kerala has always had an enlightened and responsible political leadership, its present government has been quick to put in place a robust strategy to deal with Covid-19, acutely aware of the vital importance of links with the rest of the world for Kerala’s economy, indeed the Indian economy as a whole. Not only do millions of Malayalees working in the Gulf, one of the regions badly struck by Covid-19, bring in billions of dollars every year into India, but Kerala exports hundreds of thousands of trained nurses that staff hospitals around India and the Gulf.
Kerala’s is just one, if obvious, example of the importance of global links for India and Indians. It is not an accident that next to Kerala the most Covid-19 affected states have been Maharashtra, Telangana and Haryana — all homes to Indians living abroad. Recent arguments from “swadeshi” enthusiasts that Covid-19 will contribute to greater inward-orientation of the economy does not take into account the globalisation of the middle classes, ranging from working class families dependent on incomes from the Gulf, to peasants manning the agrarian and livestock economies of Canada and Italy and the millions of the technically qualified who live in the developed West, especially the United States.
A highly regarded supporter of the BJP recently tweeted that in hindsight it would be appreciated that the Narendra Modi government was very smart in walking out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement because its membership would have exposed India to dependence on Covid-hit China. The fallacy of this argument lies in the fact that India walked out of the RCEP precisely because China and other countries were not willing to allow more Indians to live and work in their countries! Indeed, for three decades now, India has sought a multilateral agreement for the movement of people, not just merchandise and capital, and the Indian diaspora is viewed as an asset. India cannot afford to enter a post-Covid world that reduces, rather than expands, opportunities for Indians to earn a living from the global economy.
In the short term, there will be flight to safety of people worried about a pandemic, as there is of capital during a financial crisis. Many Indians abroad will want to return home either for family or financial reasons. It remains to be seen how long such people choose to stay back in India given the fact that they have all been “voluntary migrants”, leaving India for greener pastures. Unlike the millions of “distress migrants” who leave home under social, political and economic pressure and compulsion, India’s middle classes travelling to developed countries have all been voluntary migrants who had chosen to socially secede from their home country. Apart from the migration of middle-class workers, students and professionals, that of the elite is also not going to be reversed. Children of scores of well-placed business persons, political leaders, officials and diplomats have all migrated to the developed world — a phenomenon best described as a “secession of the successful”.
Wealthy businessmen who have been taking pride in their “non-resident” status, buying fancy property in Europe but minimising tax liability in India, are now desperately seeking permission to bring their globalised families home in search of more easily accessible healthcare. Influential people in government, business and other professions may like their children to migrate out of India in normal times, even use medical facilities abroad for normal procedures, but when there is a public health scare and millions queue up for help, they find accessing private hospitals and doctors easier at home than in Covid-hit West. When normalcy returns, the globalised Indian will fly away once again.
The writer is a policy analyst and former media advisor to prime minister of India. This article first appeared in the March 25 print edition under the title ‘Virus in a globalised India’.
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