Coronavirus is ending globalisation faster than we know it. Countries are finding ingenious ways to close borders and shut out foreigners in an effort to secure jobs for their own citizens in the face of mass unemployment and shrinking economies.
The Indian middle class and elites, which have in millions been rushing to study and settle in Western countries over the last 30 years, are suddenly finding their fortunes reversed. The US government has now ruled that foreign students enrolled in universities offering fully online courses this fall will have to return to their countries. Around 202,000 Indian students were enrolled in the US in 2018-19 and this kind of a measure wreaks havoc on many education plans, finances and working futures.
The Trump administration is the most extreme example of introducing anti-foreigner policies but the direction of travel in Western societies is clear: the world is no longer a welcoming place for Indians. The UK has been tightening visa rules for years, as have Australia and New Zealand. Around 800,000 Indians could be forced to leave Kuwait after it passed a draft expat quota Bill limiting the number of Indians to 15% of the population.
The Indian middle class has been reproducing itself abroad in recent decades through a trajectory of study, work, permanent residency and citizenship. Coronavirus has put an end to that pathway. The old route to settling in the West is unlikely to come back even if a vaccine were to be invented. Migrants will have to wait till neoliberalism confidently models the impact of pandemics on economies and domestic employment. COVID-19 seems like a latter-day Tower of Babel story, a lasting stroke of planet-wide estrangement.
This is a moment of existential crisis for the Indian middle class; it overturns life rhythms that it came to take for granted and thereby poses an unexpected pressure point for the Narendra Modi government. The post-liberalisation phase since 1991 has seen two variants of the country’s middle class: those who could leave India for greener pastures and those who could not. Many well-to-do (mostly upper caste) Indians cast their vote of no confidence on the country’s education sector, employment prospects and quality of life at large and chose to go or send their children abroad. Those who did not have the means stayed put.
The BJP is interested in both these constituencies and has cultivated them; both are bombarded with polarising anti-Muslim rhetoric and tropes of muscular nationalism via TV and social media, but with one difference. Those abroad can access the Indian public sphere on their own terms, they get to have the option of another experiential life, of material comfort, rule of law and individual freedom and tune into India when they please, while those at home are stuck with the bigotry, inefficiency and the daily political circus.
The two worlds never really meet, notwithstanding breezy holiday trips to India. The diaspora will not choose to exchange their lives for India, even if the prime minister asks them to return (as he did at the Madison Square Garden in 2014). Nationalism is longing for home after longing to get away.
COVID-19 is now threatening to give nationalism a permanent address. The Indian middle class is staring at the prospect of being cooped up at home in greater numbers. It will then have a chance to properly assess the quality of the vikas that Modi has delivered. One of the great successes of the Modi government is that it has stalled the revolution of rising expectations; citizens freely blamed the Congress for governance failures but now dare not openly ask the Central government as to why their lives are not getting better. The BJP has managed to manufacture consent with a combination of brute institutional force and propaganda; globalisation has also helped its cause by providing an escape route for affluent sections, who could leave India after seeing prospects dim in the public sector. That option is now being radically downsized by the virus.
What then are the implications for the Modi government? The BJP must expect internal pressure from its own upper caste base for quality of life to improve if Indians returned by the thousands. The latter will no doubt expect a general climate marked by the rule of law, they will want better schools and colleges, safer neighbourhoods, a cleaner environment and better employment prospects for themselves and their children.
This crisis is also a severe diplomatic challenge. Indians will expect the Ministry of External Affairs to link market access and weapon imports to free movement of people. This is a severe test of India’s leverage abroad. Getting diplomats to vote for a UN Security Council seat is far easier than securing access to thousands of skilled workers and students.
Coronavirus is also a broad strategic challenge. If countries are to plot their futures in a de-globalised world where populations are largely confined within their borders, then what kind of a country will India need to be and what kind of government will it need to attain its goals?
It is worth noting that the US is a world leader because it embraces critical thinking in all spheres. Its universities embrace scientific temper and allow the scrutiny of belief systems and institutions in an effort to advance human inquiry. Democrats and Republicans (prior to Trump) have been unified in their consensus of preserving this quality of their universities, notwithstanding the furious culture wars. That is how the US constructs knowledge that helps it to dominate the world.
The BJP, on the other hand, appears to be taking India in the opposite direction. It is instinctively anti-intellectual, it hasn’t upheld scientific spirit much in public proclamation, it treats its best universities and dissenting students as enemies of the state, its gifted freethinking young people as threats – not assets. It is pushing for Hindi when English rules the world and now it doesn’t want foundational concepts for political order, such as democracy, secularism and federalism to be taught in schools.
It is, in short, committed to the closing of the Indian mind, rather than its efflorescence. Liberals at home have been shouting from rooftops about the importance of these for the future of India. Perhaps those returning from abroad, those who have had a taste of these in the West, will have better luck convincing the government. The diaspora has been rather agnostic about rising illiberalism in India while benefiting from cosmopolitanism in the West. It won’t have the luxury of that double vision now and will need to make the connection between liberalism and the alluring dimensions of Western life that it values. And to get back to the broader strategic point, a country recently humiliated by China really cannot afford to undermine its own mind going into the future, as the BJP is causing it to.