Raisina Dialogue: Modi, Jaishankar back vaccine diplomacy, hail India’s rise as an altruistic, responsible power

One of the hottest political debates in India right now is centered on vaccines, and whether the government should have supplied vaccines abroad when cases are shooting through the roof in India. Till date, India has dispatched more than 65 million doses of vaccines — as gratis, commercial supplies or Covax scheme — to 91 countries. This list contains nearly a third of humanity and some of the poorest countries in the world in Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean as w ell as rich nations such as the US, Canada and the UK.

In many cases, India-manufactured vaccines were the only jabs these poor nations — who lack the resources or the wherewithal to compete with the richer world in the global vaccine market — had access to, to tame the pandemic within their shores as the richer nations were accused of hoarding billions of doses. Amid vaccine nationalism in the developed world, India’s vaccine diplomacy received praise from the WTO.

But the Opposition is not impressed. With the number of COVID-19 cases rising exponentially in India, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi has shot off a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi questioning the Centre’s decision to ship vaccines abroad. Sonia Gandhi, Congress president, accused the government of “mismanaging the situation — allowing a shortage of vaccines in India by exporting it abroad.”

Interestingly, the Modi government is staying put with vaccine diplomacy despite domestic political pressure. Moneycontrol reports that the Centre has decided not to ban commercial export of COVID-19 vaccines by two manufacturers — Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech — in a decision taken on 12 April following a meeting to take stock of India’s vaccine availability to inoculate own citizens.

Though there has been visible slowing down of exports, the decision to stick to sharing life-saving vaccines with the poorest nations of the world, despite political pressure at home, speaks of a conviction in India’s self-image as a responsible power, rooted in the moralistic tradition of India’s foreign policy.

Therefore, it makes sense when the external affairs minister says — as he did on the opening day of the Raisina Dialogue during a session on ‘vaccines and global expectations’ — that India sees itself as an “enlightened power” that does not “shut the door” on others as it enters the room. India’s outlook is that the world is a family, and “it not only organises its own rise, but also facilitates the rise of others…”

India’s capabilities in health security, according to Jaishankar, is integral to India’s rise and India’s rise would simultaneously contribute to the global common good.

“Part of India’s rise would be really to demonstrate additional capabilities. And I think the world would be better served by those additional capabilities. Capabilities, which are in the hands of a country, which embraces the world, which actually, as I said, believes in international cooperation, whose heritage is to do that, and who, by the way, is prepared to sort of put its money where its mouth is, or at least its capability, where its mouth is, and as we have seen, whether it’s hydroxychloroquine, or whether now vaccines, we have stepped forward. I think it’s something which is worth underlining.”

The minister pushed back against the notion that India should turn inwards, stop sharing vaccines with the world and reject international cooperation.

“This is a very practical, delivery-oriented government… And for those who actually question international cooperation, I want people to also understand, that our ability to make vaccines… is itself a result of international cooperation. So international cooperation is not a one-way street where we are giving things to other people and somewhere short-changing ourselves, I think people need to understand that.”

Later in the day on Tuesday, the prime minister in his inaugural session echoed his cabinet colleague in commenting that India will continue to share its resources. He said India has “walked the talk” despite “own limited resources”, striking a balance between protecting “our own 1.3 billion citizens”, supporting “the pandemic response efforts of others” and encouraging “coordinated regional response” in the neighbourhood.

“We understand fully, that mankind will not defeat the pandemic unless all of us, everywhere, regardless of the color of our passports, come out of it. That is why, this year despite many constraints, we have supplied vaccine to over 80 countries. We know that the supplies have been modest. We know that the demands are huge. We know that it will be a long time before the entire humanity can be vaccinated. At the same time we also know that hope matters. It matters as much to the citizens of the richest countries as it does to the less fortunate. And so we will continue to share our experiences, our expertise and also our resources with the entire Humanity in the fight against the pandemic.”

The prime minister and his cabinet colleague’s comments point to altruism in outlook that springs from India’s heritage, history and a belief that India might not be the world’s most powerful nation but it is a moral power without peers, punching above its weight in the global high table. As Jaishankar said, “to the extent that you have margins and the ability and the obligation to help others, I think it's the decent thing to do, as I said, doing good is also doing smart.”

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