Research, Writing

Just deserts? Western reportage of the second wave in India exposes deep schisms in relations with the East

Co-authored with Mr. Jaibal Naduvath

This article is a continuation of a previous article written by the authors, Revisiting Orientalism: Pandemic, politics, and the perceptions industry

In Lord Byron’s poemChilde Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), the protagonist Harold, contemplating the grandness of the Colosseum, imagines the condemned gladiator, dignified yet forlorn, butchered for the entertainment of a boisterous, blood lusty Roman crowd out on a holiday.

Public spectacles of suffering are integral to the discourse of power. The perverse imagery and messaging surrounding the suffering seeks to intimidate and suppress the subaltern’s agency to perpetuate ethnic dominance and social control. It pivots around an elevated moral sense of the ‘self’. In his seminal work, When Bad Things Happen to Other People, John Portmann argues that it is not unusual to derive gratification over the suffering of the ‘other’, particularly when the native feels that the suffering or humiliation of the ‘other’ is deserved. The suffering then becomes fair recompense for transgressions real and imagined, and the accompanying sense of justice and closure brings forth feelings of gratification.

India is reeling in the aftermath of the second wave of COVID-19. As death reaps rich dividends cutting across class and covenant, the country is engaged in a determined fightback. The developments have made global headlines, and, in equal measure, triggered global concern. Apocalyptic images of mass pyres and victims in their death throes, replete with tales of ineptitudeprofiteering and callous attitudes, have made front page news and have become television primetime in much of the trans-Atlantic press, conforming to reductive stereotypes that have informed three centuries of relations with the Orient. The ‘self-inflicted’ suffering is then ‘fair recompense’.

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Research, Writing

India: Too strategic to fail

Co-authored with Akshay Mathur

Since the second wave of COVID-19 engulfed India, there has been an outpouring of support from nations around the world. Help came from all directions. Rich nations including the US, UK, Germany, and Australia; developing and emerging markets like Mexico, Indonesia, and Bangladesh; and even smaller nations like Mauritius, Kuwait and Bahrain have rushed emergency supplies to India. Partner countries have responded to India’s humanitarian need with whatever they could muster, from oxygen concentrators and liquid oxygen to Remdesivir.

An embattled India sought help and gratefully accepted what it got. This assistance came with a sense of camaraderie—with confidence, eagerness, and without prejudice. The tone and tenor of aid being offered is markedly different from ‘north to south’, ‘rich to poor’, ‘developed to developing’, or ‘conditions-based’ grants of the past. It is also qualitatively different from the all-round aid India received in the 1960s or 1970s. This time, India was short of only essentially two commodities—oxygen and specific medicines like Remdesivir. As such, its requests were focused and purposeful.

India’s strategic position in international relations

Why did the world respond so expeditiously? One reason is India’s emerging salience in global affairs. India today is a strategic partner to many nations. It is a dependable stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific, a dynamic market-based emerging economy with a direct bearing on geoeconomics, and a core member of the club of democracies. How India responds and recovers will be a test for emerging arrangements on economic interdependence, regional security, artificial intelligence, reforming multilateralism, and trade negotiations. India, despite its low per capita income is too strategic to fail—or even to be put out of action for too long.

As Australia sent support, it spoke of India as a key partner in the Quad in vaccine production. The Australian government emphasised the criticality of helping India recover quickly, for its production capacity is important for the world to fight COVID. The United States’ move to waive IP protection for COVID-19 vaccines, its willingness to negotiate at the WTO, and its delivery of raw materials required for India to make millions of vaccine doses showed that shoring up India’s domestic manufacturing capacity is a key motivation for external assistance. A similar perspective came from the India-EU Summit. It highlighted cooperation on “resilient medical supply chains, vaccines, and the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs)” as central to the joint fight against COVID.

India’s significance in global politics cannot be gauged from data alone. It is still a developing country by any economic measure. Yet, when seen as a member of the G20, a founding member of the Quad, an invitee to the G7, a member of the alliance of 10 ‘like-minded’ democracies (D10), a member of the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence, the chair of BRICS in 2021, an elected member of the United Nations Security Council for 2021-22—India’s aggregate strategic, geopolitical, and geoeconomic weight and influence matters.

There is also recognition and gratitude for the 66.3 million vaccines India shipped as bilateral aid, contracts, and through the WHO-led COVAX to other nations, before the second wave hit India. True, this approach is being questioned by some today. But if we step away from the polemics of the moment, it is important to recognise this as a sign of India’s commitment to good global citizenship. This will offer little solace for those who have lost loved ones or are currently suffering because of the devastating second wave; there are understandable questions about the way in which the second wave has been handled, and illustrations of where the state (and society) could have done better. Even so, that does not mean we start interrogating the very basis of global citizenship and solidarity—the same sense of unity that has come to India’s assistance today. Without friends abroad, our situation would surely be worse.

The speed and scale of global support could very well be attributed to India’s active and effective foreign engagements. It demonstrates how Indian diplomacy punches above its weight on the international stage and can mobilise help when needed. India today is understood more comprehensively around the world. Its actions and policy positions on global affairs are more pronounced and appreciated.

To be sure, India is not the only nation to which aid is being provided. The total assistance to India by the US is worth nearly US $100 million, of more than a billion dollars in contributions made so far including to GAVI. But support to India is one of the largest. Similarly, the EU has pledged €2.47 billion for supporting vaccines to developing and low-income nations. Global civil society has raised its voice in support of India in unison. The fact that even progressive critics of India in the US polity have rallied to India’s cause—and discovered common ground with it on issues of vaccine IP and access—is an acknowledgment of the uniqueness of the pandemic moment, the goodwill for India in its entirety, and the contribution of India to global causes.

A developing side story in this journey of Indian diplomacy has been paradiplomacy. Take, for instance, the role of business chambers. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) is working with its German counterpart, Bundesverband mittelständische Wirtschaft (BVMW)—an association of the German Mittelstand—on oxygen concentrators. The US industry-led Global Task Force is working with the US-India Business Council and the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum on ventilators and concentrators. Danish companies such as Maersk have directly supported India with oxygen concentrators and medicines.

Similarly, California sent oxygen generation units and the German state of Baden-Wuttermberg sent oxygen equipment to Maharashtra, with which it has sister-city agreements. This demonstrates that paradiplomacy by subnational governments in India has come of age. Japan specifically directed its aid to India’s Northeast, aligning COVID support with existing regional interests. Bhutan sent oxygen to India through neighbouring Assam. Gujarat, Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, among others, have all put global economic and diaspora networks to use. Indian businesses, professionals, and students remain the best roving ambassadors for their mother country and, in some cases, their home states. The Indian diaspora in Qatar for instance, has sent direct support. Indian business corporations have stepped in and sourced key equipment from foreign countries where they have operations. For the first time, perhaps, India’s aggregate calling abroad is larger than the piecemeal efforts that have been deployed by it in the past.

The way forward: Continuing with good global citizenship

All this is comforting for an India in whose wellbeing nations around the world are invested. What we need now is for India to fulfil the goals it must embrace. The pharmacy of the world has to live up to its promise as a vaccine source for not just itself, but also its neighbours and the Global South. Without India being vaccinated and without Indian vaccine capacity being widely available, the world will not be able to defeat COVID-19. As many have repeated over the past year, “No one is safe until everyone is.”

The international community has done what it can for India. It is time for us to return the favour—jab-by-jab. For that we need to heal as a country, build capacity to cater to each Indian, and plan for the needs of many outside who count on us. Even if the natural impulse is to look inwards and only provide for one’s own, the way forward is continuing with good global citizenship, not curtailing it. The Prime Minister has often spoken of the potential of India’s scale, speed, and size. In the coming six months, one-sixth of humanity has to put these attributes to use. There is no scope for failure and the outcomes will be scrutinised by many.

As the Health Ministry prepares its plan to vaccinate the entire adult population by December, this is the also the time to plan how much we can deliver to the world. The numbers, in terms of vaccine doses being produced, need to be rethought to take into account the imperative of assisting those countries who require India’s manufacturing capabilities to safeguard them from the devastating impact of the pandemic. Research indicates that COVID-19 is likely to become a seasonal phenomenon like the common flu, in which case, India must invest in the production of booster shots that may be administered regularly. As the treacherous virus mutates, experts are of the opinion that it might potentially mutate into a form that evades existing vaccine immunity. To prepare for such a scenario should it arise, research and development efforts should also be directed towards responding to potentially more lethal variants. As we race towards the immunisation of the world against the novel coronavirus, vaccines will be the most important global products, servicing the world’s needs.

For India to continue being a responsible global actor that plays a central and vital role in the mission to vaccinate the world against COVID-19, India needs to build the capability and capacity at home first. The intensity of the second wave may not have entirely been within our control; but what we do next will be. So, we must ramp up production, vaccinate our population, and then embark on the essential task of making the world safe for all, and not just the rich. The success of India in saving lives—at home and abroad—in the coming months and years,  will rest on its vaccine capability that needs greater heft and rapid investments.

The views expressed above belong to the author

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