Geopolitical forecasts, due to their very tempestuous and complex nature, tend to be notoriously misguided. Nobody could predict in 2019 that a small virus would cause unprecedented upheavals in our lives in 2020. Nonetheless, without making any specific predictions for 2021, let us summarize here six contemporary trends that will most likely affect India and the world in the coming months.
First, due to the economic upheaval caused by COVID-19, economic inequality in India and the world has worsened. 2020 saw the big companies, especially tech, getting richer while small firms faced untold financial hardships to survive (and many collapsed). This trend of the big getting stronger and the small getting weaker also translates into various sections of the society. While many of us have been fortunate to be able to work from the safety of our homes, most people could not afford this luxury while the unemployment rate reached record-breaking figures last year. This huge income inequality will surely cause many social disturbances across the world, and especially in India where the economy had been slowing down continuously since early 2017.
Second, partisanship in politics will grow even more aided by fake news and social media. We all witnessed the horrific events that took place in the US Capitol a few days ago where the esteemed culture of democratic transition going back more than two hundred years was shred into pieces. It is not only in America where a section of the populace has begun to live in what is called “alternative reality” in which it believes in its own set of “facts” and “lies.” In India too, social media has been fueling and widening the divide between the dominant political ideologies whereby ideologues from each side now consume their favored “news” content for entertainment rather than pondering over the other side of the coin. Partisan troubles spilling from the parliament to the streets is a sure foreboding of more chaos and violence. Combined with the first trend above, it becomes a potent mixture for revolutions. Only time would tell if democratic institutions and politics will adjust soon enough to absorb these changes or a violent realignment from below is around the corner.
Third, China’s efforts toward making our world a bipolar one will continue. The way China has been able to handle the pandemic and dealt with Hong Kong protests means that President Xi Jinping will likely continue an aggressive foreign policy. This combined with the resentment against China in the United States and the west due to COVID-19 would further portray China as a distinct emerging superpower. India, on the other hand, is already wary of China after the violent events of June 2020 and the present standoff in Ladakh. A weakened Europe out of the equation, soon-to-be President Joe Biden’s policies will dictate if China’s rise would be peaceful or tumultuous for the current world order.
Fourth, despite the temporary setback in 2020, globalization would continue as vaccines slowly bring normalcy to the world. 2020 proved to be the worst year for international travel and the exchange of commodities ever. Many politicians in various countries are arguing for more self-reliance in the future especially in food and health-related commodities and services. Yet, the genie of globalization once out of the bottle is almost impossible to put back again. Most developing nations, including India, are rushing forward to attract foreign investment to jump-start their economies. More than physical commodities, services would be globalized even further in a world increasingly at ease with digital innovations and remote learning.
Fifth, a physical and mental health pandemic is around the corner in the short-term. The strained healthcare system burdened by COVID-19 could not cater to a multitude who suffered from other serious ailments. Similarly, many people were themselves wary of receiving care in hospitals from the fear of getting infected by the coronavirus (not everyone can afford the luxury of remote healthcare or personal visits from doctors). Furthermore, the social isolation enforced due to lockdowns across the world forced millions of people to stay alone indoors away from their friends and relatives. “Man is by nature a social animal,” remarked Aristotle and no amount of digital technology could suffice for human touch and face to face conversations. Many among those who had to undergo quarantine would be suffering from mental health issues and will need immediate care as we move toward a world that we were more familiar with.
Sixth, and one hopes, humans will understand anew that the world is more interconnected than they could imagine. A virus originating in one small city can now wreak havoc across the whole planet in a matter of a few weeks. As shown by the coronavirus which has claimed more than two million lives already, Nature has no sense of purpose. International collaborations would gather strength (if only based along regional geopolitics and international alliances) to make sure that the next pandemic would not cause such devastation. One wonders on the other side though if terrorists would now plan to develop new kinds of dangerous viruses (which is easy to do in a small lab) rather than try to occupy nuclear weapons (which is much harder due to the sophisticated technology involved and security initiatives by the governments). Furthermore, global environmental challenges like global warming, air pollution, plastic pollution, etc. should also now be viewed from the prism of international collaboration rather than isolated issues.
Thankfully, a lot of good news has also started to trickle in. Vaccinations are advancing very well in many nations including India while many other nations have already resumed close to normal life. Without a doubt, 2020 belonged to the healthcare and essential workers who risked their lives for everyone else and their stories of courage and commitment can put a smile on anybody’s face. Only time will tell if 2021 may prove to be an epilogue to 2020 or the start of a new book in itself. As the famous saying goes, “there is light at the end of the tunnel.” However, before galloping forward as we all want to, we must make sure if that light is of the bright sunshine welcoming us or of a train approaching us to hit us.