The second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has forced India to accept foreign aid – including from the Chinese Red Cross – for the first time in 16 years. For Indians of a certain persuasion, there is a particular shame in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Indian government having to seek foreign aid. For their worldview comprises a mix of various resentments against the perceived outsider – Muslims, Westerners/Christian missionaries, Chinese/atheists. Indeed, the strength of articulation of the vishwaguru trope lies precisely in this reality and the need to have something that is apparently of India’s ‘own’ to offer.
It is difficult really to say if vaccine maitri was born out of this sentiment alone for it is possible that within the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) some of the old spirit of non-alignment or Third World solidarity still animates its actions. Nevertheless, the contrast in the space of a few months to go from vaccine akshayapatra to an aid recipient is jarring.
There are wider foreign policy ramifications for India.
China’s recent convening of a virtual conference of South Asian foreign ministers on vaccine cooperation will have longer term implications. Not only was the Indian representation conspicuously absent, New Delhi looks unlikely and unable to convene anything of the sort anytime soon or in time to prevent these countries from reaching out to China to restock their vaccine supplies. A door left ajar will now be firmly pushed open by Beijing.
Meanwhile, it does not appear as if the MEA is quite able to distinguish between regime interest and the national interest. There appears to be an extraordinary effort put into managing foreign criticism if one were to go by the External Affairs Minister calling on his diplomats to counter the apparently “one-sided” criticism of the government’s pandemic response by international media. The Indian Deputy High Commissioner in Canberra, in fact, pre-empted this order by a few days taking umbrage at a newspaper report in The Australian that carried a news report sharply critical of the Modi government.
None of this is likely to stop the foreign media from doing their job. If India’s wavering commitment to democratic freedoms and civil liberties were previously discussed sotto voce in world capitals, the use of draconian laws against those protesting against the government’s flat-footedness during the second wave has not gone without comment. It is one thing for China to engage in such actions and for foreign media to act carefully to ensure the safety of their reporters. It is quite another for India to do the same. It is no wonder that reporters believing themselves to be working in a democratic country are unlikely to restrain themselves. This is not disaster porn as much as disappointment that India is not doing better.
Still more unfortunately, the second wave will exacerbate a trend already long visible in Indian foreign policy of an understaffed MEA and its representatives around the world dropping everything to tackle the ‘priority’ task, which is now of collecting aid and ensuring its transport to India. This has happened in the past under the BJP, for instance, in the effort to get Pakistani terrorists sanctioned at the United Nations.
One can also foresee a long period ahead in which Indian embassies will spend time merely recovering lost ground about being a reliable supplier of vaccines, and about public health and safety, to name just a few concerns – forget about being a rising power – and to do this underequipped and overworked as always. Far from Foreign Minister, S. Jaishankar’s injunction that India had to juggle several balls in the air at the same time with “confidence and dexterity”, his diplomats are likely to drop many. These developments will have direct or knock-on effects on, for instance, contracts entered into with Indian companies, the flow of tourists to India, and, not least, the nature of the welcome Indian diplomats and leaders will receive in foreign capitals.
Not only has the one big crutch of the argument the MEA had to beat the West with – that India willingly gave more vaccines to the world than Western nations – suddenly been removed, the Foreign Minister himself was unfortunately earlier in May in quarantine in London after members of his delegation tested positive – more egg on India’s face. And worse, perhaps, from the point of view of the present regime’s legions of foreign-based or foreign-connected supporters, all of this is a sure recipe for tougher visa conditions for Indian travellers for the foreseeable future.
With the botched domestic response to the COVID-19 second wave, Indian foreign policy will probably spend years trying to get out of the hole the Indian government has dug for the country.
But if one must look for positives, as the government’s image managers constantly enjoin us to do, then hopefully, Indians will learn a little more about the world simply by looking up on a map the many countries they are currently receiving aid from – among others, Egypt, Kuwait, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Qatar, Indonesia, Luxembourg, Mauritius and Romania.
A version of this article was published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘India’s vaccine diplomacy failure and its foreign policy implications’, Moneycontrol, 19 May 2021.