At a time when India needs all the help it can get from the world, its insecure, aggressive posturing is bizarre and counterproductive. India should focus on building its state capacity, and its foreign policy should make the world a partner in that effort rather than deny its challenges
by Mohamed Zeeshan
Not too long ago, India was positioning itself as a Vishwaguru – or global leader – as it produced and supplied vaccines for the rest of the world. In a matter of weeks, that narrative has fallen apart.
The inadequacies of the Indian state have been brutally exposed by a second wave of Covid-19. India has had to reverse its approach of not accepting foreign aid as it struggles to rein in the worst public health catastrophe in its post-independence history.
It is hard to see how India can procure enough vaccines to inoculate its own people in time, let alone export vaccines to the world. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened vaccinations to all Indians over 18 on May 1, many states have delayed the roll-out of that programme over a crippling shortage in vaccine supply.
India’s vaccine diplomacy drive has accordingly come to a screeching halt. Not long ago, the Quad came together to boost India’s vaccine manufacturing capacity in a bid to compete with China’s export of vaccines. But New Delhi has not exported any vaccines in a month and that vacuum has been filled by Beijing. China has already exported some 240 million doses around the world.
So far, India’s foreign ministry has tried to compensate for these shortcomings with “wolf warrior” diplomacy – an overly defensive and insecure foreign policy that presents the world and the global media as the enemy gleefully waiting for India to collapse.
India has sent undiplomatic letters to foreign newspapers for their reports on the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic. In a recent meeting with top diplomats, India’s Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar made countering the “one-sided narrative” in the world media a priority.
Things got worse after some embassies in Delhi reached out to volunteers from the opposition Congress party for oxygen cylinders. After a Twitter row between Jaishankar and a Congress leader, the foreign ministry released a diplomatically insensitive public memo, warning the embassies against “hoarding” oxygen supplies.
At a time when India needs all the help it can get from the world, Delhi’s insecure and aggressive posturing is bizarre and counterproductive. It will also have long-term consequences for Indian soft power.
For years, India has straddled two different worlds in international politics. As a developing economy, it suffers several crippling developmental challenges. Yet, as the world’s second-most populous nation, fifth-largest economy and a nuclear power, India is also touted as a major presence in global geopolitics.
But under Modi, Indian foreign policy has tried to whitewash this reality for the sake of Hindu nationalist pride, rushing to proclaim that the country is now a global superpower that has already arrived.
On foreign visits – especially while addressing the Indian diaspora – Modi has routinely taken digs at previous governments for weak decision-making. By contrast, his Bharatiya Janata Party has long campaigned at home that his government has finally delivered India to a position of strength.
The result has been a snobbish foreign policy that sees foreign assistance and foreign ideas as an insult to India’s ancient civilisation. The foreign policy establishment is routinely forced to prioritise chest-thumping and image management, even if it is at the cost of substantive policymaking.
India’s vaccine diplomacy drive has itself been a victim of this approach. Instead of drawing up a domestic vaccination schedule, determining India’s own monthly vaccine needs and exporting only the excess, Delhi was exporting more vaccines than it was administering at home until as late as March.
The government ignored all ominous warnings, including mutations of the virus in other countries and a parliamentary committee report that predicted a second wave, as far back as last November. The lack of planning also meant vaccine manufacturers were denied sufficient funds up front to increase production early and ensure supply for both domestic vaccination and exports.
The pandemic should force a recalibration in Delhi’s foreign policy. India should now focus on building its national power and state capacity, and Indian foreign policy should look to make the world a partner in that effort rather than denying these challenges for the sake of empty posturing and one-upmanship.
But Delhi should see this less as a weakness and more as a strength. For leadership in the developing world, a superiority complex is less useful than humble give and take.
India’s developmental challenges make it more relatable to the rest of the developing world. Most countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America still face these same developmental challenges, and policymakers in these countries relate to the crises that policymakers face in Delhi every day.
It makes India a worthwhile partner in the developmental journey of more than half the world. It can share lessons in what works and what doesn’t in policy and governance, both for India’s own progress and for that of others.
Insecure, aggressive posturing and one-upmanship will not facilitate such leadership. Rather, they will shatter India’s goodwill and soft power worldwide while hardly even papering over its internal problems. Indian foreign policy should find itself chastised by the pandemic.