As India grapples with a devastating second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, one aspect of the crisis stands out as a silver lining: the world is responding with unparalleled solidarity. Valuable consignments of urgently-required medical equipment and drugs have flown in via land, air and water from dozens of countries and multiple continents. Foreign supplies have begun to reach healthcare facilities overwhelmed by the sudden surge in covid cases and are making a difference in saving lives.
The global outpouring of emergency support for India is not driven by pity, charity or guilt. In fact, a lot of the incoming products are purchases that India sourced and is paying for, rather than donations in the form of ‘aid’. As India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar aptly told journalists, “What you describe as aid, we call friendship.”
This friendship rests on two planks: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cultivation of close ties with world leaders and reciprocity for India’s global generosity that has accumulated over time. According to the New York-based GZero Media, there is a “politics of compassion”, wherein India has received far greater covid emergency help than Brazil—one of the countries worst hit by the pandemic—because Modi “has maintained warm relations with governments whose help his country desperately needs”, unlike Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been a virus denier with a “history of insulting world leaders.”
The international goodwill that is overflowing today has also been earned by India through its far-sighted foreign policy of stepping up the provision of global public goods. World leaders have emphasized they are giving back to India after receiving so much from it when their countries were in trouble as the pandemic was hammering them. No less than 150 countries have been beneficiaries of Indian vaccines, medical gear and pharmaceuticals since covid spread out of China and plunged the world into catastrophe. India’s large-hearted policy of helping developing and developed countries when they were in peril amassed so much soft power that it is able to dip into that vast reservoir of international empathy now.
Even before the pandemic broke out, India’s ‘rescue diplomacy’ towards countries facing natural or human-made calamities had raised its stature as a ‘first responder’ to tragedies. The fact that India has been taking greater global responsibilities upon its shoulders, despite being a developing country with fiscal limitations, is working in its favour. While some Indian and foreign commentators have latched on to public health failures in India to paint it in negative light, perhaps born of ideological motivations, governments and citizens around the world retain good memories of gaining from India and are expressing their gratitude with open hearts and wallets
Another reason for the display of international friendship is that the world sees India as a crucial lynchpin for security and stability, which few countries can afford to let weaken. India has become the proverbial ‘too big to fail’ nation because it holds the key to maintaining a balance of power in Asia against the expansionist and authoritarian China. According to US Vice-President Kamala Harris, the US is “determined to help India in its hour of need” by virtue of being “friends of India” and “as members of the Asian Quad.” France invoked “our strategic partnership” while dispatching oxygen plants to India, and Japan mentioned the shared goal of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” in the same breath as “close collaboration to contain the covid-19 pandemic” in India
The United Arab Emirates, which sent ventilators and breathing devices to India, underlined that the two countries had a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. Russia said it had “decided to send humanitarian assistance to India in the spirit of the special and privileged strategic partnership between our two countries.” Likewise, as Australia’s ventilators were arriving in India, its Prime Minister Scott Morrison vowed that Modi and he “will keep working in partnership on this global challenge.”
The realization that India—with its successful first phase of vaccine diplomacy that supplied a whopping 66 million doses to 95 countries—would play a significant role in eventually lifting the world out of covid’s clutches, is evident to these countries. If India is being propped up by the world, it owes to a recognition of its capabilities. Even the US government’s willingness to lift an embargo on vaccine raw material exports and to waive patents on covid vaccines, which will benefit the entire Global South, was the result of a determined push from India and the Indian diaspora in America.
Amid the gloom of record infection rates and deaths in India, many may not realize or like to admit that plenty of the country’s good deeds and fundamental strengths are paying dividends. India is not a burden but an opportunity and a hope for the world that considers it temporarily down but not out.
Just ask US corporate giants like Google, Microsoft and Amazon, which have also pitched in with substantial covid emergency support to India. The country is an unmissable market for these companies and it is in their own self-interest to ensure India overcomes the pandemic. Getting capable world governments and corporations to fight on behalf of India is one of the bright spots of the present crisis and a harbinger of the post-pandemic international order that will likely be shaped partly by India’s leadership.