India needs to strengthen its comprehensive national power
2021 is turning out to be a difficult year for India. A second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is ravaging the country and denting its international image, even as it obliges India to seek global support to fight an unprecedented crisis.
As the year began, the situation appeared to be very different. The economy was turning around robustly. India had seemingly controlled the transmission of the coronavirus, rolled out the world's largest vaccination drive and successfully developed an indigenous vaccine. Through its diplomatic initiative of “Vaccine Maitri”, it had also distributed over 66 million doses of vaccines across ninety-five countries and supported the developing world in its fight against the pandemic, particularly at a time when developed countries were busy cornering vaccine resources beyond the immediate requirements for their population.
However, things began to change dramatically from the beginning of April with a sudden resurge in coronavirus cases across the country, to which fast spreading strains of the virus, public disregard of necessary precautions, ongoing elections in five states and large religious congregations all appear to have contributed. With daily cases breaching 350,000, India’s public health infrastructure has come under enormous stress. There are critical shortages of oxygen supplies and cylinders, vaccines, ventilators, medical supplies and therapeutics.
This juncture has forced India to reach out for support. While help has gradually been forthcoming, there have been instances of inexplicable restraint and even misgivings among some partners, driven largely by narrow and commercial interests. At the same time, the western media has denounced India’s policies based on tendentious and specious arguments, ranging from irresponsible governance to overconfidence.
These motivated efforts ignore the policy failures of the developed West over the past year and mask its self-centred disregard for global solidarity and concerted action for the equitable distribution of vaccines. Calls by developing countries for some relaxation of IPR protections to meet what is unquestionably a global health emergency have fallen on deaf ears.
In contrast, through “Vaccine Maitri”, India has integrated developing countries in the vaccine supply chain, lending them a helping hand to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. With the effective role of international organisations undermined by the pharmaceutical lobbies of the developed West, India has committed the largest share to the COVAX initiative for ensuring equitable global access to vaccines. This is ample testimony of its desire to see a united international community fighting against a global threat to humanity.
Unfortunately, in the midst of the massive onset of the second wave, the disruption of supply chains and a sudden unavailability of raw materials have severely affected the vaccine production line in India. On the supply side, the inward-looking outlook of the developed West has led to restrictions in access to vaccine ingredients. On the demand side, rising cases have pressured India to speed up the vaccination of its vast population. This combination of factors has exacerbated India’s domestic health crisis.
Yet, India remains committed to providing vaccines and relief supplies to developing countries by ramping up production to meet their needs, while also accounting for domestic requirements. If ensured the raw materials, as of today India has the capacity to produce 8.2 billion doses of vaccines per year.
The apathy and dithering response of strategic partners as India’s public health crisis worsened has to be seen in this proper context. It has taken a huge public outcry in India and the build up of domestic pressures to spur a US response. Ideally, it should not have been necessary for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to underscore to President Joe Biden the importance of smooth and efficient supply chains of vaccine raw materials and medicines. This is all the more so as the Biden administration is in the forefront of espousing shared global responsibility for what is described as the existential threat to humanity posed by climate change. While it is understandable that international relations are not a realm of morality, India is right in expecting that its strategic partners will look beyond narrow interests and maintain a long-term perspective. Anything less is bound to create distrust and may cause disruptions to India-US strategic convergence.
These developments carry important lessons for India. Firstly, nations are driven not by altruism but by realist considerations of self interest, which are independent of the ideology of their respective domestic regimes. Secondly, misunderstandings between strategic partners can arise when the terms of the relationship are mismatched and need remedial realignment. Thirdly, India has walked a long distance with its strategic partners in the evolving geopolitical environment. Now it also needs to think beyond the great power rivalry in the wider Indo-Pacific region to deal pragmatically with the complex challenges that India will confront in a post-pandemic world.
Most importantly, India needs to strengthen its comprehensive national power, which is the essence of Aatmanirbharta, and maintain an unrelenting focus on preserving the lives and livelihoods of its citizens.
( The authors are strategists with the Delhi Policy Group, New Delhi)