Samir Saran, President, ORF was interviewed by Oxford Political Review in the backdrop of the Indian government’s decision to enforce a complete lockdown, India’s capacities and challenges, and its potential role in the global fight against COVID19.
Oxford Political Review: While the strict lockdown demonstrates the Modi government’s determination to control the virus from spreading, is India prepared to handle the pandemic and the massive economic disruption in making?
Samir Saran: Few nations are truly prepared for a pandemic of this nature and scale. India does possess some advantages in terms of the state’s decades of experience when it comes to fighting communicable diseases and natural disasters. But it also has the challenge of responding to this pandemic while continuing to battle legacy health challenges. Its health systems are likely to be overwhelmed unless it is able to moderate the surge of COVID19 and this has motivated the stringent lockdown.
The economic disruptions, on the other hand, will be far harder to manage. While India’s public distribution system may mitigate against severe harm to life and livelihood, the pandemic will hit its vast informal economy the hardest. It remains to be seen whether India can use this opportunity to rectify many of the institutional and administrative limitations that have hobbled this sector for the past seven decades. India now has digitalisation as an ally and it may well be a very powerful policy instrument to respond to a complex Indian economy.
As we enter the next phase of the lockdown, it is apparent that the government is attempting to balance health and life concerns and the economy. It is expected that some sectors including agriculture and manufacturing may be able to restore operations, albeit with limited capacity and under strict safety protocols. This attempt to put together a ‘smart lockdown’ model is something useful for India and other countries as the length of the combat with this pandemic may be considerable.
OPR: In a recent article, you termed the present crisis as an ‘infodemic’ in light of how information itself and information networks affected the discourse on COVID-19. In this context, how do you assess the response of global institutions like the World Health Organization?
SS: It is an unfortunate truth that the WHO’s actions in the early weeks of the outbreak contributed to the ‘infodemic’. Its early recommendations against travel bans and its delay in declaring Covid19 a global public health emergency contributed to many nations acting late and relying on incomplete information. This proved fatal to thousands around the world. The WHO failed both in its advisory role, in failing to alert the world on time, and in its technical role when it continued to amplify China’s assessments on the cause, location, and virality of the outbreak.
The WHO has named and shamed governments including China in earlier instances. This time, by soft peddling the China narrative, the WHO leadership has lost credibility. The organisation is important, and as the Indian Prime Minister mentioned at the virtual G-20 summit, the WHO needs both strengthening and reform.
OPR: Where does India position itself in the ongoing blame-game between the US and China? As an emerging power with global ambitions, would it be prudent to keep out of these debates with global ramifications. Do you feel that it is high time that India too should contribute to the international opinion on whether any accountability needs to be fixed or not?
SS: Unlike both the US and China, India is not inclined to see every global challenge from a zero-sum perspective. Delhi is unlikely to dive into shrill conversations about what the virus should be called but there is no equivalence between the US and China on this issue. China concealed facts, their intentions were less than honest, and they must be called out.
That being said, India should certainly not “keep out of the debate”. The real question, after all, is not about semantics, but about China’s growing clout in international organisations—especially the UN and its numerous agencies—and whether this compromises the independence and integrity of these institutions.
The takeaway for India is that it must recalibrate its approach towards global institutions in the decade ahead. Delhi must build its own presence within them and lead coalitions that can advance its own interests as well as limit the ability of other powers to manipulate them. This requires the deployment of both financial and diplomatic resources, which, so far, New Delhi has either been unable or unwilling to do.
OPR: How exactly could COVID-19-driven disruptions alter India’s engagement with her immediate neighbourhood as well as her standing on a global level? On the regional level, India’s assistance to Maldives has been appreciated, but easing the ban on the export of the hydroxychloroquine after President Trump’s tweet is seen as a sign of giving in to the American pressure. Having a large manpower of trained paramedical stuff, a major producer of generic drugs, and consisting of strong logistical capacities covering the expanse of the Indo-Pacific region, what stops India from taking the lead in the global fight against COVID-19?
SS: The Trump incident is best seen for what it is—one more erratic idiosyncrasy of his presidency and the media’s willingness to sensationalise it in both geographies. India would likely have exported HCQ to the US and any other country in need in any case. India has sufficient surpluses and capacity and has been the largest actor in the HCQ supply chain for many years.
Separating the signal from the noise would reveal that India has been one of the few nations willing to show global leadership. Delhi was quick to reach out to SAARC and the G20 in order to help coordinate regional and global responses to the pandemic. India has helped repatriate citizens from around the world as the crisis broke out and has delivered public goods to nations worldwide.
Delhi should use this moment to focus on the challenges at home, to define its own role in the world, and to assess who its actual friends and partners are. For me, how New Delhi is able to steer the Indian population and the Indian economy over the next six to 12 months will be its defining moment. If India gets it right, the world will stand up and take notice. If we get it wrong, others will write our story.
OPR: Besides shaping debates and potential interventions in the domains of foreign policy and economy, Observer Research Foundation (ORF) also runs a Public Health Initiative. Alongside the ongoing efforts by the Indian government as well as the leading industrialists, could think tanks like ORF also a play a role in aiding India’s efforts in addressing the present crisis?
SS: ORF has responded very rapidly to this pandemic as a policy think tank. Through our COVID19 tracker, we are identifying the spread of this disease here in India, and around the world, with accurate and real-time information. We are producing a daily curation of essays and articles from experts in public health, finance, geopolitics and other areas to provide a full assessment of the impact of this pandemic as well as predictions for the future. And we hope to leverage ORF’s digital platforms to inform the public about the different aspects of this crisis.
Think tanks, especially in the emerging world, must shoulder the responsibility of augmenting state capacity; certainly during this pandemic but also in less turbulent times. We remain honest arbiters of a wide spectrum of analyses from across the world in an era where misinformation sprints many miles. Institutions like ours must bring together other institutions and experts who can provide multidisciplinary perspectives and solutions to those who are receptive.
A few years ago, we at ORF argued that health policy belongs to the National Security Domain and that many actors and experts with different perspectives and areas of expertise—including in diplomacy, economics, and technology—must engage with it. This pandemic is forcing many to do exactly this.