What’s in the news?
- In a recent development, the Narendra Modi government introduced The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2019, also known as the triple talaq Bill, in the Lok Sabha, amid protests by Opposition members who said it violated the Constitution.
- The Bill, which is the BJP-led government’s first legislation in the second term, was introduced after the Opposition asked for a division of votes.
- The treasury won with 186 “ayes” to the 74 Opposition “nays”.
Large number of cases of triple talaq reported in the country:
- Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who introduced the Bill, said the legislation was meant to ensure gender justice and equality.
- The Bill was not about religion but a “question of dignity of women and we are committed to safeguarding [it]”.
- There were 543 cases of triple talaq reported in the country.
- Even after the Supreme Court banned the practice, over 200 cases were reported and this necessitated, in his view, a Bill that addressed the issue.
- Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said, “The job of Parliament is to legislate, and it is up to courts to interpret the law.”
Opposition that the bill faced in Parliament:
- Several Opposition members stood up to protest as soon as Mr. Prasad was asked by Speaker Om Birla to table the Bill.
- The Speaker asked Shashi Tharoor of the Congress, N.K. Premachandran of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and Asaduddin Owaisi of the the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) to present their views.
- Opposition by Shashi Tharoor:
- Tharoor said he was against triple talaq, already voided by the Supreme Court, but opposed the Bill as it conflated civil and criminal laws.
- The Bill was a “textbook example of class legislation” as it was pointed at one community — the Muslims.
- Opposition by Mr. Owaisi:
- Owaisi said the BJP’s “affection” for Muslim women and its advocacy of gender justice were suspect, considering the party’s opposition to the entry of Hindu women into the Sabarimala temple.
- The Bill violated constitutional rights as it stipulated a three-year jail term for men, whereas a similar offence by non-Muslim men attracted only a year in jail.
- Opposition by Mr. Premachandran:
- Premachandran made similar points against the Bill, which had faced objections from Opposition parties from the beginning.
- They had claimed that jail term for a man for divorcing his wife was legally untenable.
What’s in the news?
- Iran vowed recently to defend its borders after downing a U.S. drone it insisted had violated the country’s airspace, after it emerged that President Donald Trump had approved and then called off retaliatory strikes on Iranian targets.
- The downing of the drone — which Washington insists was above international waters but Iran says was within its airspace — has seen tensions between the two countries spike further after a series of attacks on tankers in the Gulf which the U.S. has blamed on Tehran.
- The commander of the aerospace arm of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said the drone was warned twice before it was downed over the Gulf of Oman.
Actions Taken by the U.S. President:
- Under pressure to respond to the high-stakes incident near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, Mr. Trump issued orders for retaliatory strikes, but then called it off.
- The U.S. President had struck a combative tone in his public comments before rowing back. “Iran made a very big mistake!” he tweeted in response to news Iran had shot down the Global Hawk surveillance aircraft.
- “This country will not stand for it, that I can tell you,” he said later at the White House.
Growing fears of an open conflict:
- But as the pre-dawn incident whipped up fears of open conflict between the U.S. and its declared foe Iran, Mr. Trump moved swiftly to dial back tensions. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth,” Mr. Trump said.
- Following the President’s mixed message, the U.S. special representative on Iran, Brian Hook, said, “Our diplomacy does not give Iran the right to respond with military force.” He gave this statement to reporters in Saudi Arabia. “Iran needs to meet diplomacy with diplomacy, not military force.”
- Iran said it had called in the Swiss Ambassador, whose country has represented U.S. interests since the severance of diplomatic relations in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution of 1979, to issue a formal protest.
- Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi provided the Ambassador with “indisputable” evidence that the drone had violated Iranian airspace, the Foreign Ministry said.
- Araghchi “reiterated that Iran does not seek a war and conflict in the Persian Gulf”, but warned: “The Islamic Republic of Iran would not hesitate for a moment to decisively defend its territory against any aggression.”
- Iranian television later broadcast images of what it said was “debris” of the downed drone recovered from Iran’s territorial waters.
- “The debris was floating. We recovered it from the sea inside our territorial waters,” a general said.
Case of an ‘Unprovoked attack’?
- The Pentagon denounced the “unprovoked attack,” claiming that the Navy drone was 34 km from Iran when destroyed by a surface-to-air missile.
- It published a map showing the flight path of the drone, which indicated that it travelled outside of Iranian waters and included a photograph showing coordinates when it was downed.
- Zarif provided different coordinates for the downing of the drone by a domestically-manufactured Khordad 3 air defence battery.
- The drone’s downing came at a time when Iran was already accused by Washington of carrying out attacks on tankers in the congested shipping lanes heading out of the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz.
- Experts opine that the nature and dynamics of Southern Asian geopolitics are undergoing a radical transformation, slowly, steadily and in an irrevocable manner.
- As a matter of fact, one of the world’s most volatile regions and hitherto dominated by the United States, Southern Asia is today at an inflection point with far-reaching implications for the states in the region, and for India in particular.
- Having said this, an important questions arises: Is New Delhi adequately prepared to weather the incoming geopolitical storm?
A Look at the Prevailing Geopolitics:
(a) Challenges that the U.S. is facing:
- To begin with, there is a sharp, though often understated, great power competition in the region with the U.S. caught between its reluctance to part with its quickly fading glory on the one hand and unwillingness to do what it takes to maintain its regional influence on the other.
- And yet, when challenged by China and Russia in the regional geopolitical landscape, the U.S.’s superpower instinct is to push back, often leading to short-sighted decisions and confused policies.
- Importantly, the resultant geopolitical competition for space, power and influence in the regional scheme of things is undoing the traditional geopolitical certainties in Southern Asia.
- One also observes that Russia and China are jointly and individually challenging the U.S.’s pre-eminence and drafting smaller countries of the region into their bandwagons.
(b) Unipolarity or Multipolarity?
- Despite India’s unease and traditional suspicion towards great power system shapers and managers, the simple fact is that a benign unipolarity or a balanced multipolarity with some amount of great power concert is generally better than unbalanced multipolarity.
- Unbalanced multipolarity when combined with a situation of power transition in the regional sub-system, as is perhaps the case today, might prove to be destabilising.
- Currently, we are perhaps at the cusp of such a moment in Southern Asia.
(c) The China pivot:
- It is important to note that Washington’s role as the regional pivot and power manager is becoming a thing of the past with Beijing increasingly able and willing to assume that role.
- Regional geopolitics, from Iran to Central Asia and from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean region, is increasingly being shaped by China.
- China is the new regional hegemon with states in the region jumping on its bandwagon without much resistance.
- When new powers are on an ascendance, its neighbours tend to recalibrate their policies and old partnerships and alliances.
- Regional holdouts and challengers such as India will need to balance themselves tactfully to steer clear of the rising hegemon’s ire.
(d) Presence of an extreme trust deficit:
- Yet another feature of the current regional sub-system is the presence of an extreme trust deficit among the various actors in the region. That India and Pakistan, or China and India do not trust each other is not news, but a trust deficit exists between even seemingly congenial partners such as the U.S. and India, Russia and China, and among traditional partners such as Iran and India, and Russia and India.
- Experts opine that the varying degrees of trust deficit when combined with other factors such as unresolved conflicts, misunderstandings or the occurrence of a crisis could easily push the region towards more conflict and friction, and obviously less cooperation and regional integration.
(e) Rising war talk in the region:
- The rising war talk in the region is yet another contemporary feature of the Southern Asian regional sub-system.
- The possibility of a military conflict between Iran and the U.S. (a path the hawks in Washington are pushing U.S. President Donald Trump to pursue) which in turn would draw many more countries in the region into it leading to widespread instability, potential for India-Pakistan border skirmishes and possible escalation, an escalating China-U.S. trade war, and the many proxy and cold wars in Afghanistan and West Asia will keep the temperature high in the region for the foreseeable future.
- In sum, a power transition in the Southern Asian sub-system, an extreme trust deficit and the escalating war talk pose ominous signs for the region.
Looking at the different layers of balancing acts India should take up:
- India is a country that is caught right in the middle of these tectonic developments and that habitually reacts to geopolitical developments with characteristic tardiness.
- And yet, true to its DNA, India is likely to adopt a slew of balancing acts.
- This is perhaps the most appropriate strategy to adopt under the circumstances provided it does so with a sense of clarity and purpose instead of merely reacting.
- There are at least five layers of balancing acts that India would need to adopt in order to weather the incoming geopolitical storm.
- At level one, it would need to balance its innate desire to get closer to the U.S. with the unavoidable necessities of not excessively provoking China both in the maritime and continental domains. Clearly, getting too close to the U.S. will provoke China, and vice versa.
- The second layer of this balancing game should drive India’s West Asia policy. Here it would have to take care of its energy and other interests (including the Chabahar project) with Iran and not alienate the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel by doing so. While Iran’s share in India’s energy imports is steadily decreasing, alienating Iran might not suit India’s strategic interests in the longer run.
- As a third balancing act, dealing with the Russia-China partnership will be crucial for India’s continental strategy, be it with regard to arms sales, the Afghan question or checking Chinese dominance of the region. As a matter of fact, New Delhi should be clever enough to exploit the not-so-apparent fissures between Beijing and Moscow. A related concern should be the growing relationship between Pakistan and Russia which must be dealt with by smart diplomacy rather than outrage.
- Yet another layer that requires careful balancing by India is the strategic partnership between Pakistan and China. While Pakistan is the revisionist power in the region, China, being a rising superpower and an already status quoist power in the region, could potentially be persuaded to check Pakistan’s revisionist tendencies. This again requires a great deal of subtle effort from New Delhi to convince Beijing that it has great stakes in regional strategic stability. What must be noted is that both Beijing and New Delhi, despite their sharp differences and unavoidable strategic competition, share a stake in the region’s stability. Therefore even a small measure of rapprochement between them, as it seemingly exists today, could stabilise the region to a great extent.
Handling the issue of Afghanistan:
- Finally, if India is serious about having a say in Afghanistan’s future, it would need to enact several balancing acts there: between Russia and China, China and Pakistan, the Taliban and Kabul, and the Taliban and Pakistan.
- In a constantly changing Afghan geopolitical landscape, the contents of India’s interests should also evolve.
- New Delhi should keep in mind that it must, by all means, be careful to avoid getting caught in a nutcracker geopolitical situation in the region.
- Engaging in a delicate balancing game is undeniably the need of the hour, and let us remember that balancing such seeming contradictions is what smart diplomacy is meant to achieve.
- It is important to note that South Asia covers only about 3.5% of the world’s land surface area but hosts a fourth of its population.
- This fact makes South Asia a region of significant importance for international development.
- However, in spite of the geographic proximity that countries in this region enjoy and their common socio-cultural bonds, this is one of the world’s least integrated regions.
- Intra-regional trade is a meagre 5% of the total trade these countries do globally, while intra-regional investment is less than 1% of the region’s overall global investment.
- South Asia’s average GDP per capita is only about 9.64% of the global average.
- Accounting for more than 30% of the world’s poor, the region faces myriad economic and environmental challenges.
Lack of initiatives:
- While the countries share a host of common development challenges, economic cooperation remains less than adequate.
- While a few noteworthy regional initiatives such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC ) and the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) Initiative have been undertaken to bring the countries closer together, economically and socially, there is scope for much more.
- As a matter of fact, for a region with common development challenges of inequality, poverty, weak governance and poor infrastructure, a shared vision of attaining the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provides enormous opportunities for cooperation, collaboration, and convergence (3C).
- It is important to note that compared to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were a set of eight objectives to be achieved by developing nations with support from developed nations by 2015, the SDGs are more universal, inclusive and integrated in nature.
- The 17 goals and their 169 targets are inter-connected and cannot be implemented by countries working in isolation.
- Many are transnational in nature and require regional efforts.
- As a matter of fact, South Asian countries could benefit a lot by adopting a regional framework of cooperation that can support, strengthen and stimulate the SDGs.
- The SDGs highlight not only the importance of regional approach towards achieving the goals but also the regional synergy and resulting positive value additions towards achieving the SDG 2030 Agenda.
- In the SDG Index 2018, which is an assessment of countries’ progress, among 156 countries only two South Asian countries, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, are in the top 100. India is ranked 112th.
- Most South Asian countries have made good progress in ending extreme poverty, but they face persistent challenges to goals related to industry, innovation and infrastructure, zero hunger, gender equality, education, sustainable cities and communities and decent work and economic growth.
- These apart, most of South Asia continues to be vulnerable to climate change and climate-induced natural disasters.
- A closer look at the country-level data shows that India is performing well in Goal 1 (no poverty), Goal 6 (clean water and sanitation), Goal 12 (sustainable consumption and production), Goal 13 (climate action) and Goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions).
- However, India is doing poorly in goal 2 (zero hunger), Goal 5 (gender equality) and Goal 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure).
- Like India, Bangladesh is doing well in Goals 1, 6, 12 and 13 but poorly in Goals 2 and 9, and lagging behind in Goal 7 (affordable and clean energy).
- Further, while doing well in Goals 1 and 12, Pakistan needs improvement in Goals 2, 4, 5 and 9, similar to India and Bangladesh. It also needs improved performance with respect to Goal 8 (decent work and economic growth).
- Furthermore, it is important to point out that there are a lot of similarities among these three big economies of South Asia with respect to achieving some specific SDGs as well as exhibiting poor performance in some common goals.
- A regional strategic approach to tackle common development challenges can bring enormous benefits to South Asia.
- SDGs related to energy, biodiversity, infrastructure, climate resilience and capacity development are transnational, and here policy harmonisation can play a pivotal role in reducing duplication and increasing efficiency.
Case in Point: Bangladesh
- In a study titled ‘SDGs Needs Assessment and Financing Strategy: Bangladesh Perspective’, Bangladesh has undertaken exemplary initiatives for analysing its available resources and additional funding requirements for SDG implementation, suggesting that the country requires an additional $928 billion to fully implement the SDGs.
- The study identifies five possible sources for SDGs financing: public sector, private sector, public-private partnership, external sector and non-government organisations.
- On the other hand, data for many of the SDG targets and indicators for the Maldives are unavailable.
- Similarly, India has formulated some pragmatic plans and initiatives to improve food and nutrition security from which many of the neighbouring countries can benefit.
- Experts point out that to address institutional and infrastructural deficits, South Asian countries need deeper regional cooperation.
- On financing the SDGs in South Asia, countries can work towards increasing the flow of intra-regional FDI. The private sector too can play a vital role in resource mobilisation.
- The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the platform for regional economic cooperation in this region, has become moribund and remains unsuccessful in promoting regional economic cooperation.
- As a matter of fact, if the countries of South Asia, the fastest growing region of the world, can come to a common understanding on regional integration and cooperation in achieving the SDGs, it can unleash a powerful synergistic force that can finally make South Asia converge.
- In conclusion, a convergence towards achieving a common socio-economic agenda gives hope that no one in South Asia will be left behind in the journey towards eradicating poverty and enduring dignity to all.
- Experts point out that the key message from the UN’s World Population Prospects 2019 report is that national leaders must redouble their efforts to raise education, health and living standards for people everywhere.
Looking at where India stands?
- It is important to note that India is projected to become the most populous country by 2027 surpassing China, and host 1.64 billion people by 2050.
- As a matter of fact, the world as a whole could be home to 8.5 billion people in just over a decade from now, and the number could go up to 9.7 billion by mid-century.
- The projections should be viewed in perspective, considering that alarmist Malthusian fears of inability to provide for more than a billion people on earth did not come true.
- Yet, there are strong arguments in favour of stabilising population numbers by raising the quality of life of people, and achieving sustainable development that will not destroy the environment.
What does the UN Report show?
- The UN report shows migration to countries with a falling ratio of working-age people to those above 65 will be steady, as those economies open up to workers to sustain economic production.
- Japan has the lowest such ratio, followed by Europe and the Caribbean; in over three decades, North America, Eastern and Southeastern Asia will join this group.
Looking at the Indian National Scene:
- India meanwhile will have a vast number of young people and insufficient natural resources left for exploitation.
- However, preparing for the changes and opportunities migration offers will depend on a skills revolution.
- At the national level, achieving a reduction in fertility rates in States such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh — which are high as per Sample Registration System data — is a challenge for India as it seeks to stabilise population growth.
- This is possible if the State governments set their minds to it.
- They must singularly focus on improving education and health access for women, both of which will help them be gainfully employed.
- On the other hand, a rise in life expectancy has brought with it a policy imperative that is bound to become even more important in coming decades.
- A growing population of older adults is a certainty, and it opens up prospects for employment in many new services catering to them.
- Next, urban facilities have to be reimagined, with an emphasis on access to good, affordable housing and mobility.
- The Sustainable Development Goals framework provides a roadmap to this new era.
- But progress in poverty reduction, greater equality, better nutrition, universal education and health care, needs state support and strong civil society institutions.
- Making agriculture remunerative and keeping food prices stable are crucial to ensure nutrition for all. India is set to become the most populous nation. For its leaders, improving the quality of life for its people will be a test of political will.