The Donald Trump administration’s recent actions threaten the foundation of trust and flexibility on which India-U.S. relations are premised. However, they seem to be part of a pattern progressively visible in American foreign policy in which bullying friends has become the name of the game. The Trump administration’s insensitive approach towards its allies in Western Europe by denigrating the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the European Union (EU), threatening to impose tariffs on EU goods in connection with trade disputes and Europe’s relations with Russia, and Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal that roiled its European partners are all evidence of this policy.
Bookends of stability?
The same paradigm explains Washington’s recent moves vis-à-vis India. These stand in sharp contrast to the first year of the Trump administration when the U.S. was actively wooing India as a strategic counterweight to China and because of its rapidly expanding market that was seen as providing great opportunities for American business. In a major foreign policy speech in October 2017, then U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that India and America were “two bookends of stability — on either side of the globe” and that the “emerging Delhi-Washington strategic partnership” was essential to anchor the rules-based world order for the next hundred years.
Even before Mr. Tillerson’s speech India had come to be seen as a pillar of American policy in Asia. The term ‘Indo-Pacific region’ appeared prominently in the joint statement issued by Mr. Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the end of the latter’s visit to the U.S. in June 2017. Since then, it has come to replace the term ‘Asia-Pacific region’ in American foreign policy jargon. In May 2018, the Pentagon changed the name of the U.S. Pacific Command to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, emphasizing not only the strategic linkage between the Indian and Pacific Oceans but also the geo-political prominence of India in the U.S.’s Asian strategy.
However, the Trump administration seems to have reversed course in recent months. U.S. unilateral actions on three fronts have simultaneously demonstrated what amounts to downgrading India in American strategy. The announcement on April 22 by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Washington would not renew after May 2 the exemption that it had granted India and seven other countries regarding import of Iranian oil was one sign that American unilateralism had trumped coherent strategic thinking.
The Iranian share of Indian oil imports stood at 10%. While it would not be impossible for India to replace Iranian oil, the American announcement failed to consider the strategic importance of Iran in Indian foreign policy and the damage it could do to India-Iran relations. Iran’s strategic location and the common concerns of both countries regarding the future of Afghanistan and the threat of terrorism emanating from Pakistan make Tehran an ideal geopolitical ally of New Delhi. India is also engaged in building the Chabahar port in southeastern Iran, which could act as the gateway for India to Central Asia, bypassing a hostile Pakistan. Moreover, by forcing India to tamely accept the American diktat on Iranian oil, it has torn off the veneer of “strategic autonomy” that Indian policymakers had long touted as the fundamental creed of Indian foreign policy.
The second leg of this tripod is the U.S. threat to impose sanctions on India if it buys the S-400 missile defence system from Russia for which a deal had been signed in October 2018 by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr. Modi. The U.S. has argued that India’s purchase of the S-400 systems will violate the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), a U.S. federal law that requires the country to impose sanctions on states entering into major military deals with Russia.
This puts India in a Catch-22 position. If it defies U.S. threats and goes ahead with the purchase, it would subject India to economic sanctions and curtailment of defence and high-tech cooperation with the U.S. If it buckles under American pressure and cancels the S-400 deal, it will have major negative implications for India’s relations with Russia, its largest arms supplier and a time-tested friend. Furthermore, it will make it clear that India is for all practical purposes a “lackey” of the U.S., thus once again severely damaging its standing and credibility in international circles.
The third and latest instance of unwelcome U.S. pressure was the announcement on May 31 that, beginning June 5, India will be removed from the preferential trade programme, known as the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), which gives developing countries easier access to the U.S. market and lowers U.S. duties on their exports. Mr. Trump signed off on a presidential decree to that effect alleging, “India has not assured the United States that India will provide equitable and reasonable access to its markets.”
India is the largest beneficiary nation under the GSP scheme, and exported goods worth $6.35 billion to the U.S. under the preferential regime last year. This is close to 10% of the goods exported by India to the U.S. While the Indian reaction to the American decision has been mild so far — the Commerce Ministry termed it “unfortunate” — it is bound to cause resentment in New Delhi, especially since U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had assured the government that benefits would not be cut off until after India’s elections, thus allowing the new government time to reflect on the issue.
Taken together, these three decisions indicate that Washington is impervious to Indian strategic concerns and economic interests despite its earlier pronouncements that it considers India a valued “strategic partner”. These decisions are part of a unilateralist syndrome that currently afflicts American foreign policy. Mr. Trump and his advisers, principally National Security Adviser John Bolton and Mr. Pompeo, no longer seem to discriminate between friend and foe when making important policy decisions. Such an attitude does not bode well for the future of America’s relations with its friends and allies. Washington appears to have overlooked the fact that even the “indispensable nation” needs reliable friends and allies.
S.Jaishankar, India’s new Minister of External Affairs and an outstanding diplomat with a wealth of experience in dealing with Washington, will have to convince American policy-makers that this maxim is relevant to the U.S.’s relations with India. Mr. Jaishankar should subtly communicate to his interlocutors that this is especially true now that the international system is becoming progressively multipolar, thus increasing foreign policy options available to Indian policymakers.
The report from the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) is finally out, garnering a lot of attention based on selective reading of tables and spurring partisan debates. In particular, the staggering increase in the unemployment rate, from 1.7% in 2011-12 to 5.8% in 2017-18 for rural men and from 3.0% to 7.1% for urban men, has generated wide ranging hand-wringing. However, a more nuanced picture emerges if we are to look beyond the partisan debates to policy implications of the data on employment and unemployment. Three takeaway points from these data are of particular policy relevance.
First, while the unemployment rate is a frequently used measure of poor performance of the economy, under conditions of rising school and college enrolment, it paints an inaccurate picture. Second, the reported unemployment rate is dominated by the experience of younger Indians who face higher employment challenges and exhibit greater willingness to wait for the right job than their older peers. Third, the unemployment challenge is greatest for people with secondary or higher education, and rising education levels inflate unemployment challenges. These three conditions, taken together, suggest that part of India’s unemployment challenge lies in its success in expanding education while not expanding formal sector jobs.
Comparison of male employment and unemployment data from the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO’s) 68th round Employment survey conducted in 2011-12 and the new PLFS of 2017-18 illustrates each of these points.
The unemployment rate is calculated by dividing the number of unemployed by the number in the labour forces, that is, the sum of employed and unemployed. This statistic ignores people who are out of the labour force — students, homemakers and the disabled.
Unemployment rate data
As long as the proportion of the population out of the labour force is more or less stable, the unemployment rate is a good indicator of the changes in the employment situation. However, India has seen massive changes in proportion of individuals enrolled in an educational institution over the past decade.
For 15-19-year-old rural men, the proportion primarily engaged in studying increased from 64% to 72% between 2011-12 and 2017-18. As a result, while the proportion of the population aged 15-19 that is unemployed doubled from 3% to 6.9%, the unemployment rate tripled from 9% to 27%. Leaving the numerator (proportion of population unemployed) same while the denominator changes by removing students from the labour force can overstate job losses.
The proportion of the population that is unemployed has increased only slightly for population aged 30 and above but increased substantially for younger men. For rural men (30-34), the proportion of unemployed increased from 1% to 2.3% while that for men (20-24) increased from 4.6% to 16.1%. Much of the increase in male unemployment is located among ages 15-29. It is important to recognize that in a country dominated by informal sector work, remaining unemployed is possible only for individuals whose families can survive without their immediate contributions. While a 25-year-old may spend his time diligently applying for a formal sector and be supported by his parents during this period, a 30-year-old with a wife and children may have no option but to take any work available to him, even if it pays poorly and offers little job security.
Finally, the unemployment rate has been traditionally high for men with secondary or higher level of education and this is the segment in which most of the increase in unemployment is located. The unemployment rate for illiterate rural men increased from 0.5 to 1.7 between 2011-12 and 2017-18 but the absolute increase was substantially larger, from 3.8 to 10.5 for rural men with at least secondary education. Similar trends are evident for urban men.
This increase in unemployment for educated youth comes at a time when education has expanded substantially. Among rural men (15-29 years), the population with secondary or higher education increased from 43% to 53% between 2011-12 and 2017-18; in urban areas there was a five percentage point increase, from 61% to 66%.
These three observations taken together suggest that the roots of India’s present day unemployment challenges lie in its very success. Educational expansion affects the unemployment debate by skewing the unemployment statistics and by creating greater competition for well-paid jobs among a rising population of educated youth. Rising prosperity allows young graduates to wait for well-paying jobs, creating an army of educated unemployed, before being forced to accept any work, frequently returning to family farms or starting small shops.
Recognition of rising unemployment as a function of rising education forces us to grapple with different issues than a simple focus on unemployment statistics. If public policies such as demonetisation are responsible for rising unemployment, we would see across-the-board increase in unemployment for all age groups. That this phenomenon is located mainly among the young and well educated reflects a challenge that goes well beyond the temporary slowdown facing India postdemonetisation.
Modern India is an aspirational society. After decades of economic stagnation, the 21st century has seen massive growth in aspirations. Parents invest their hearts and souls along with their rising incomes in educating their children. Children hope to make rapid economic progress well beyond the modest gains achieved by their parents’ generation. The unemployment statistics based on PLFS data document the challenges these young people are likely to face.
The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance has returned to power with a mandate that allows it the freedom to focus on key challenges facing modern India. Creating jobs for an increasingly educated workforce and ensuring that the new workers are well equipped to enter the labour force are twin challenges that deserve greatest priority.
One hopes that leaders of the present government who made their political debut during the student movement in the 1970s will meet this challenge headon.
The first proposal of this government to be made public was the 100-day action plan for education.
It includes framing a new National Education Policy, replacing the University Grants Commission (UGC) with another body, and adding 10 more Institutions of Eminence.
This is merely a continuation of what the previous government was doing. This comes as no surprise; after all, it is well known that the Bharatiya Janata Party is deeply interested in education and culture. The last five years of the Modi government have shown us the nature of interventions made in the field of education.
The purpose of education
While the media has extensively covered the attacks on institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hyderabad Central University, and the violence unleashed by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, in some places, what is more long lasting is the way the BJP has instrumentalized education by binding it to the objective of creating skills and employment and making education useful for the market.
By doing this, it has hollowed out the whole purpose of education, which is to preserve and disseminate knowledge and generate new knowledge. This is the first time in the history of independent India that common people have started looking at universities as spaces where their hard-earned money is being misspent. The business of knowledge creation itself is being perceived as extravagant and unnecessary. So, if you look for the word ‘knowledge’ in the policy documents of the government, you are bound to be disappointed.
The very idea of pursuing truth and developing critical thought, which were seen as the role of universities, has gone into disuse. Universities were spaces where all kinds of ideas, however dominant, were constantly examined. The only aim of education, as propounded by the BJP, seems to be to mainly inculcate nationalism, as prescribed by the government, among students as well as teachers. Vice chancellors and directors of institutes are going out of their way to prove their nationalistic credentials to the government. Where is the utility of criticality then? And what then becomes the role of research? The government even circulated a list of research areas and topics to be kept in mind while preparing and approving research proposals. This essentially means that there is no space for free inquiry in the field of higher education any more. If we look at the research proposals approved by the Indian Council of Social Science Research, the Indian Council of Historical Research and even scientific bodies, we realise the thinning of this area.
Even the All India Institute of Medical Sciences recently held a seminar on ‘astrology and the medical sciences’. This means that the very idea of science is under severe stress. Also, the stories of the pressure that independent research institutions are facing in the name of appraisal and scrutiny have not come out in the open for obvious reasons.
Universities are supposed to keep alive the idea of excellence before the people at large. However, people look at some universities with suspicion today as students and scholars have been branded ‘elitist’, ‘leftist’ and ‘anti-national’ by the ruling party.
If mediocre people are made to head top institutions of higher education, it becomes clear that all that matters is ideology. Mediocrity at all levels is seen as the democratisation of a space which was earlier the preserve of the ‘elites’. In short, developing intellect is seen as unnecessary and even dangerous. All we need to do is conform to prevailing common sense. So, it is only logical that state resources are not wasted on activities which are seen as ‘extra’.
WITHDRAWAL OF STATE SUPPORT
Apart from all this, public universities are being systematically weakened by the steady withdrawal of state support to them. This is ironically at a time when the number of first-generation learners in the university space has reached a satisfactory level. Universities needed more support to improve access to higher education. Unfortunately, they are now facing a fund crunch. This leaves these students at a great disadvantage.
The government is firming an unequal hierarchy in the field by promoting the idea of Institutions of Eminence and keeping autonomy reserved for a privileged set of institutions. Most public universities with a long tradition are kept out of it, thus demoralizing their teachers and students. Autonomy to such institutions has also been linked to withdrawal of state support.
The regulatory mechanism for the field of higher education had started to weaken during the UPA regime itself. The Modi government only furthered the process. Directives from the government became frequent and regulatory agencies were used to route them to universities. Directives from bodies like the UGC kept disrupting the functioning of universities. From reservation in faculty appointments to norms for doctoral research and framing of undergraduate and postgraduate courses and syllabi, it has been a story of overreach and encroachment of the university space by the UGC. Universities have also failed to assert their autonomy and have allowed the UGC to enter areas it is not supposed to.
Along with this we have seen a campaign to purge campuses of dangerous ‘antinational’ elements. Meetings and seminars have been held exhorting students to identify such elements. Independent scholars are now being shunned by universities and the nationalism check is applied almost everywhere.
Publishing is part of the academic ecosystem. Major publishing houses have started getting manuscripts legally vetted to avoid litigation and attack by ‘nationalist’ elements. We can expect publishing to take a right turn under the new regime.
We have not talked about school education. The RSS ran thousands of schools even when the NDA was not in power. The BJP’s return to power provides a golden opportunity for the RSS to dictate syllabi, train teachers and even select them. All these developments over the last five years show that the education system is staring at a dismal future.