India’s prime minister advanced a muscular foreign policy, but his mishandling of the pandemic is an embarrassing step back.
In December 2004, when an earthquake and tsunami struck Asia, then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided it was high time for India to stop accepting aid from other countries to deal with disasters and rely on itself instead. “We feel that we can cope with the situation on our own,” he said, “and we will take their help if needed.” It was a pointed political statement about India’s growing economic heft, and it wasn’t the last. Singh’s government offered aid to the United States in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and to China after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Seen as a matter of national pride, an indicator of self-sufficiency, and a snub to nosy aid givers, the practice continued under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi despite pressure to change course during floods in the southern state of Kerala in 2018.
Modi, who has consistently campaigned on virulent nationalism captured by the slogan “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (or self-reliant India), has been forced to abruptly change policy. Last week, with images of people dying on roads without oxygen and crematoriums for pet dogs being used for humans’ last rites as the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed the country, his government accepted offers of help from nearly 40 other nations. Its diplomats have lobbied with foreign governments for oxygen plants and tankers, the arrival of medicines, and other supplies hailed on social media. “We have given assistance; we are getting assistance,” said Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the country’s top diplomat, to justify the embarrassing U-turn. “It shows an interdependent world. It shows a world that is working with each other.”
The world may be working with each other, but it is not working for Modi in the realm of foreign policy. Rather, this is a moment of reckoning, triggered by the rampaging coronavirus. After seven years as prime minister, Modi’s hyper-nationalistic domestic agenda—including his ambition of making the country a “Vishwaguru” (or master to the world)—now lies in tatters.
India, which has been envisaged since former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration became the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’s lynchpin and focused other efforts in the Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China, will have to work harder to justify that role. Meanwhile, China has redoubled its efforts in India’s neighborhood since the second wave began, strengthening its existing ties with South Asian countries and contrasting its strength and reliability with India’s limitations.
The mishandling of the pandemic has dealt New Delhi a weaker hand in ongoing talks with Islamabad and border negotiations with Beijing.
No doubt, New Delhi will be able to regain a certain sense of normalcy in a few months, but the mishandling of the pandemic has dealt it a weaker hand in ongoing back channel talks with Islamabad and border negotiations with Beijing. But even longer-lasting damage has been done to India’s soft power, which was already dented under Modi’s authoritarian regime. This is a big problem for the government as it was soft power that allowed New Delhi to assert itself for a seat at the global high table to begin with.
Front page images and video clips of constantly burning pyres and dying patients may recede from the foreground with time, but rebuilding India’s diplomatic heft and geopolitical prominence will need more than the passage of months and years. It will take a concerted effort, and S. Jaishankar, Modi’s chosen man to be India’s foreign minister, has so far appeared unequal to the task.
In March, when the second wave of the pandemic started unfolding in India, Jaishankar’s ministry was busy issuing official statements and organizing social media storms against popstar Rihanna and climate change activist Greta Thunberg. On Thursday, at the peak of the health crisis, Jaishankar’s focus in a meeting with all the Indian ambassadors to various global capitals was on countering the so-called “one-sided” narrative in international media, which said Modi’s government had failed the country by its “incompetent” handling of the second pandemic wave.
Until recently, Jaishankar was also the most enthusiastic promoter of the government’s Vaccine Maitri (or “Vaccine Friendship”) program, under which New Delhi supplied around 66.4 million doses of the India-made AstraZeneca vaccine to 95 countries in packing boxes marked prominently with large pictures of Modi. These vaccines were either commercially contracted, given as bilateral grants, or transferred under the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) scheme for poorer countries. Meanwhile, India’s own vaccination rollout has been dismal. Around 2 percent of Indians have been fully vaccinated, despite the country being the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer—a misstep that has emerged as one of the key culprits for India’s uncontrolled second wave.
Having exported doses in a quest for personal glory, Modi is now awaiting 20 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines from the United States after abruptly reversing 16 years of policy, as indicated in its disaster management documents, against accepting bilateral aid. It is bad enough that India is getting help from traditional partners like the United States and Russia, but it is also accepting supplies coming from China, with which India’s relationship has been increasingly strained under Modi. And it must have been particularly galling to the prime minister that even Pakistan made an offer to help with medical supplies and equipment. So woeful is India’s situation that it has started importing 88,000 pounds of medical oxygen daily from the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
Most Indians acknowledge their country was in an economic recession last year, and accepting bilateral aid is more of a compulsion than a choice. But how will they reconcile that with the fact that work on a $2 billion project to reconstruct a government office complex in the national capital, including building a new residence for Modi, continues unabated as an “essential service” during the pandemic?
Modi boasted of having made India a Vishwaguru and personally enhancing national prestige through his numerous global trips. His ultranationalist supporters had started assuming India was already a global power in the same league as the United States and China. This feeling tied in with his domestic political positioning. Hindutva, or homogenized Hindu nationalism, was offered as the ideology that had made this supremacy possible.
But now Modi’s supporters find their dreams of a global power shattered. They must instead confront the harsh reality of being citizens of a so-called “third world country,” which is dependent once again on the largesse of others. As the Indian economy continues to be hammered by the pandemic, there is little Modi can offer economically to his base. The edifice of nationalist pride, prestige, and global respect built by Modi on his so-called foreign-policy prowess has been demolished by the pandemic.
The pandemic has hurt India in other ways too. Australia, a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad), has imposed a ban on its citizens from returning home, threatening five-year prison sentences, if they have spent time in India. In its first leaders’ summit in March, the grouping decided to provide a billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to the Indo-Pacific region by 2022. The vaccines were to be produced in India, funded by the United States and Japan, and distributed by Australia, in what was seen as the showpiece initiative to move the Quad away from its security-centric approach and soften its reputation as an anti-China grouping. With India struggling to produce vaccines for its own citizens hit by the pandemic, it is unlikely the Quad will be able to keep its scheme on schedule. In the bargain, New Delhi’s position as the lynch pin of the Quad stands considerably diminished. If India stumbles, the American dream of the Quad can never become a reality.
Beijing has already moved in to take advantage of India’s misfortune to strengthen its ties with other South Asian countries. Last Tuesday, the Chinese foreign minister held a meeting with his counterparts from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka for cooperation against COVID-19. India was absent from the meeting. And although Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka have received some vaccine supplies from India and expect more, these countries are now looking toward Beijing for doses after New Delhi failed to keep up its commercial and COVAX commitments. In the race between the two Asian giants to be an attractive and reliable partner in South Asia, India seems to have finished behind China.
China has also pressed its advantage along its restive border with India. After an initial disengagement in Ladakh, India, China refused to pull back any further from other Indian-held territories it had moved into last summer. It stonewalled Indian attempts to discuss these areas in the last round of talks between the two sides, and it has constructed permanent military infrastructure and deployed troops close to the disputed border.
If there were ever a time for India to demonstrate its strength, it would be now. But the second wave of COVID-19 has forced the opposite. A similar impact will be felt during New Delhi’s ongoing back channel talks with Islamabad, where Pakistan will likely try to take full advantage of any chinks in India’s armor. India cannot afford to walk away from those talks as it has already been forced to engage with Islamabad due to its own inability to handle a two-front threat from China and Pakistan. An economy and a country ravaged by the pandemic makes the dual threat an even more challenging proposition for India—and hands Pakistan an unexpected advantage in the talks.
Although Indian diplomats may still be able to contain negotiation damages with Beijing and Islamabad, they can do little to undo damage to the country’s soft power. India’s reputation as a liberal democracy had already been dented, but the country’s ability to manage all its internal contradictions was still seen as worthy of emulation by the developing world. Now, with its bungled response to the second wave and canceling vaccines committed to other countries in Asia and Africa—an allocation they were banking on, it will be hard to recover.
Indians are currently dealing with a humanitarian catastrophe of Modi’s making. New Delhi’s ambitions to be a global power have been dealt a blow. Under Modi, Jaishankar once boasted, diplomacy “is having many balls up in the air at the same time and displaying the confidence and dexterity to drop none.” Now that all the balls are lying on the floor, the country will need humility, honesty, and extraordinary effort to pick them up and start again.
Sushant Singh, a senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research in India.
This article was originally published Foreign Policy. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.