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Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Reuters)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Reuters)

How India stepped up diplomacy amid covid outbreak

  • India senses a leadership vacuum in the covid-19 pandemic riven world, said Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at the King’s College
  • Since the WHO declared covid-19 a pandemic, Modi has spoken to over 40 leaders with foreign minister also in touch with an equal number of counterparts

NEW DELHI : Phone calls to leaders across continents, virtual summits with regional and other multilateral groupings, supplying medicines to more than 120 countries – Indian diplomacy has been on an overdrive since the novel coronavirus disease developed into a pandemic crippling the world economy and sickening several millions of people.

This is “India is trying to build a place for itself in the post covid-19 pandemic world," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.

India had stepped up its diplomatic engagement with the world since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in May 2014 but Indian diplomacy has definitely moved into higher gear in recent months. The reason: India senses a “leadership vacuum" in the covid-19 pandemic riven world, said Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at the London-based King’s College. The “vacuum" is evident from the paralysis in the UN Security Council being unable to muster a response to the pandemic thanks to sniping between China and the US, he said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is also under a cloud for its apparent delay to declare covid-19 a pandemic, which many countries suspect, was at the behest of China.

While several international institutions have been under stress since US president Donald Trump came into office in 2017 – the World Trade Organisation being a case in point mainly due to his “America First" policy -- “the US-China binary today is completely dysfunctional," Pant said.

“India has been making a point for some time now that we need global institutions that reflect today’s reality. Right now, the world seems to be at an inflection point and it has come at a time when India can project its capabilities – as the pharmacy of the world for example," Pant said. The reference was to India shipping drugs like the anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine and antipyretic paracetamol to Europe and Africa besides the US. This, ironically, comes at a time China is being viewed with suspicion around the world for its possible role in spread of covid-19.

Since the WHO declared covid-19 a pandemic on 11 March, Modi has spoken to more than 40 leaders with foreign minister S Jaishankar also in touch with an equal number of counterparts. Modi has also addressed South Asian heads of government, leaders of G20 countries besides a meeting of Non-Aligned Movement conference via video-link. “For the last two months, the US and China have been too involved in themselves to provide any global leadership," Pant said adding that in contrast, India is seen as one of the prominent voices calling for global coordination.

The current China-US dynamic “has opened up space for middle powers like India to show they can provide some kind of stability." In the future, there will be pressure on China for its approach to the pandemic, he said. This was likely to give rise to “quadrilateral and trilateral and other arrangements with countries like India, Japan and Australia that will look at doing things on their own, or maybe with US support," Pant added.

One of the reasons why India is stepping up its diplomacy is that New Delhi wants a say in any new emerging world order. Having sat out on the margins of the global decision making processes whether at the UN Security Council, the Nuclear Suppliers Group or the Nuclear non Proliferation Treaty, India now wants to be “a rule maker," analysts said.

“No one has any answers to what the post pandemic world will look like," said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh. “What we do see is the weakening of international cooperation. If the international order is shaken up, there is a strong possibility that India can play big role in conceptualising and shaping international institutions," Mansingh said.

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