While the world is dealing with COVID-19, India’s diplomatic outreach has been active from emerging as a major pharmaceutical supplier of the world to the provider of humanitarian/disaster relief assistance to countries, which has brought it one step closer to attaining a significant place in the post-COVID world order. Through this outreach, India has not only been able to reach out to multiple countries but also mend its relations with certain countries. This, to an extent, assures that India is a responsible stakeholder and a country the world can depend on during the time of a crisis.
India’s response to COVID-19 has broadly been two-fold. One, where the government focuses on the domestic front; for instance, the implementation of the lockdown and the second being on the international front, where it suddenly emerged as “the drugstore of the world” by supplying hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) to not just its neighbours but to around 85 countries. The crisis has taken a toll on the basic ideals of globalisation which include trade and transactions, capital and investment movements and the dissemination of knowledge. India has been trying to make its place in the world by employing the ideals of globalisation—which include migration and movement of people—by evacuating Indians and people of other nationalities from a hotspot country and by tweaking the first ideal, trade and transactions, by selling HCQ to some and ‘gifting’ it to others. While many countries are unsurprisingly focussing on the domestic front, India, on the other hand, is also focussing on dealing with the virus on the international front.
In March, India called for a virtual summit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries and pushed for a similar meeting with the G20 countries. However, as most of the major powers are preoccupied with containing the virus, in this scenario, a global engagement may not seem like a priority. It is this leaderless void that India has tried to fill by providing medical and humanitarian assistance to the world.
This leadership role that India is attempting to take is only possible because it has been able to contain the virus relatively well compared to major powers like the USA. Even China, on the other hand, is trying to establish a leadership role through medical assistance. However, it is facing immense backlash from the world in general and the USA in particular about the origin of the virus and its failure to contain it. Nonetheless, China is trying its best to make its presence felt, but given its history with the virus, countries are sceptical about importing medicines and/or testing kits from the country. This situation may not be favourable for China, but it is for India as the world is looking at India for the supply of some crucial pharmaceutical drugs like paracetamol and HCQ (though the country is dependent on China for 70 per cent of the pharmaceutical ingredients). India has taken a multi-faceted approach while dealing with the crisis and is providing medical assistance which goes beyond its neighbouring countries through what is arguably known as India’s ‘medial diplomacy’.
Through this approach, India has addressed the needs of multiple countries including those from the Indo Pacific, West Asia and almost all the Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council. India’s diplomatic approach can also be seen reflected in what the Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said recently, “If you help someone when they need it to face a crisis, the gesture won’t be forgotten easily.”
From the Prime Minister’s remark, it can be assumed that this global diplomatic outreach can turn out to be a huge advantage for India in the near future as these gestures may establish India as a reliable friend and an ally to depend upon during the time of a crisis. This strategic move can be very beneficial for India to attain a global leader position in the world. This display of soft power can help India establish dominance on a global scale, but here is the catch. While China can export medical supplies and testing kits primarily to the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) associated countries, India, on the other hand, is supplying basic medical and pharmaceutical products to various countries including those like Iran and Malaysia, subsequently mending its relationships with them. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani wrote to Modi seeking India’s assistance to deal with COVID-19. Rouhani also reached out to Modi with the expectation that India would stand with Iran against the United States’ sanctions. Apart from this, India has sent a wheat consignment to Afghanistan through Iran’s Chabahar port. Concerning Malaysia, India has agreed to supply anti-malarial drugs, indicating an improvement in bilateral relations.
However, it was also seen that not everything has been smooth with the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) with the issue of the expatriate community, especially after issuing travel bans a couple of weeks ago in some countries in West Asia. It is quite debatable whether India is doing as much as it is supposed to do, but the Indian embassies in the Gulf have been in the forefront in assisting the community.
One of the many steps taken by India was to evacuate citizens of different countries along with its citizens from Wuhan, China—the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak. Those evacuated included citizens from the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Maldives, South Africa and Madagascar. India not only evacuated these people but also quarantined them as a precautionary measure before sending them to their respective countries. These unique but much-required actions can be termed as humanitarian or disaster relief assistance (HA/DR). But, India’s HA/DR actions are largely restricted to the Indo Pacific Region, highlighting India’s ‘Indo-Pacific vision’ and its ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’.
India is taking small but significant steps in this regard by being of help to multiple countries whether it be neighbours and/or allies. This makes India seem like a responsible stakeholder in the backdrop of countries like (but not limited to) China—facing criticism from most of the world—the USA and Western Europe, including the UK, were not able to handle their domestic situation. Hence, these countries cannot pose as the right examples, but India can.
The fact that India was doing relatively well on both the domestic and international front and saving itself a significant leadership position in the post-COVID world order sounds great theoretically. However, one of the practical implications of this recognition might be that the Indian example will be taken seriously, which can also mean that the country has to be all the more cautious in dealing with the virus both domestically and internationally.
If India wishes to play a leadership role and to present a vision for a more inclusive world defined by international cooperation, it has to set a good example on the domestic as well as the international fronts. Mere global cooperation and establishing ties on the bilateral and multilateral fronts are not enough. India’s COVID global outreach project will be successful only if it succeeds in effectively containing the virus domestically. This will not only help India do more in terms of outreach but also portray it as a flawless role model.
Abhirami B is Research Intern at CPPR. Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.