Great (Caronavirus) initiative, turn it into huge strategic gain

modi saarc ani

[Modi video-conferencing with SAARC leaders]

Prime Minister Narendra Modi initiated perhaps the most significant foreign policy move of his government to-date: He called a video-summit February 15 of the heads of government of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations to discuss how together to deal with the Caronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic now sweeping through rest of Asia, Europe and the world and entering the extended subcontinental region in strength. Presidents Ibrahim Solih of the Maldives, Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, and Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, Lotay Tshering of Bhutan and KP Sharma of Nepal, reacted with alacrity to this surprising and entirely unexpected show of Indian leadership. It showed just how fertile the ground is for India to assume stewardship of the region not by the usual means of bluster and strong arm methods that have long marred India’s relations with its closest neighbours, but by displaying genuine willingness to listen to their concerns, accommodating them, and helping them help themselves.

Indeed, so swift and positive was the response of the other South Asian states that, after the initial hesitation even the Tehreek-e-Insaf party regime in Pakistan felt compelled to fall in line and join the proposed video conference. But in keeping with the current tenor of bilateral ties, Prime Minister Imran Khan tried to derate the event by having his assistant for health, Zafar Mirza, represent him and get the latter to sideline the Modi initiative by insisting that (1) restoring status quo ante in Kashmir is necessary for the success of the Modi initiative, and (2) the SAARC secretariat in Kathmandu, not Delhi, spearhead the anti-Corona virus campaign. But no damage was done in part because of what the Indian PM promised.

An expansive Modi offered testing kits and rapid response Indian medical teams of specialist doctors and technicians for deployment anywhere in the region at the request of any country, “online training capsules” for emergency teams these countries may care to constitute, the “integrated disease surveillance portal” software that India has developed to detect and trace the movement of virus carriers, and a forum for public health experts and medical researchers to confer with each other, share information and data, and mount collaborative research projects to find an antidote, which objective has been furthered by the success of the National Institute of Virology, Pune, in isolating the caronavirus gene, which process can be quickly shared with labs and agencies in the region. Of course, the kooks on the fringes peddling gaumutra (cow urine) as remedy should be no part of these exchanges! Cooperation on the Caronavirus will set India up as the regional benefactor, a role which if Delhi plays it right can be parlayed into something strategically impressive.

Implicitly and most importantly, Modi accepted that India as the largest economy and with the biggest expert manpower pool, would be subsidizing and sustaining this effort. This aspect should be amplified by our embassies to the governments in the region. However, his announcement of just $10 million as India’s contribution to the emergency fund for SAARC countries to draw from was an anti-climax. It was too small a sum to impress anybody, or to address the real worries of the economic impact of the pandemic that several participating leaders voiced.

Solih, for instance, revealed how in the past month or so tourism, Maldives’ sole source of revenue, had suffered a 20% drop and was excepted to plunge another 15% shortly. Rajpaksa likewise referred to the severe decline in tourist traffic from Europe and pleaded for “a mechanism to assist our economies to tide over the very difficult period.” Clearly, $10 million is laughably inadequate for SAARC to do anything of note, considering the other South Asian states are too poor and hard hit by the economic downturn to proportionately ante up funds. By way of providing perspective, the Egyptian government has committed $6.7 billion to tackle the danger from COVID-19. That’s the scale of monies required for India to make a mark in South Asia. But why is it imperative that India do so?

Primarily because it is a God-sent opportunity for Delhi to reverse India’s strategic slide into near irrelevance in the 21st Century, and realize its policy priority of cultivating warm and intimate relations with the neighbouring states based on their plugging into the Indian economy and taking their social, political and cultural bearings from India to which they are all organically linked. This is actually easier done than said because proclaiming this as India’s policy aim and intent would, in this age of sensitive nationalism, instantly turn off these countries, get their gander up!

The anti-Carona effort is the wedge in the door that needs to be quickly widened with offers of public and private sector investment in industry and infrastructure, help in setting up transportation and communication networks, in the facilitation of increased trade, of Indian-made armaments, and of credit lines for these purposes. Pakistan’s reluctant participation in the collective anti-Carona effort can be translated into formal and informal dialogues to resolve outstanding disputes. Sir Creek, Siachen, and even Kashmir may be nettlesome issues but their resolution is possible if Islamabad is offered a mega economic and trade deal it cannot refuse. In this context, the abrogation of Article 370 is in no way an obstacle because it mirrors the status accorded the so-called “Azad Kashmir” by Islamabad. The whole can be rendered doubly attractive specifically to GHQ, Rawalpindi, if conjoined to substantive military steps taken unilaterally by Delhi, such as the removal of all Indian short range nuclear-warheaded missiles from the western border, and the rationalizing of army’s three strike corps into a single composite armoured-mechanized corps plus several independent armoured brigades.

It is moves I have long advocated as being able to conclusively prove India’s peaceful intent and bonafides and to seed mutual trust — the essential foundation for normalcy in relations with Pakistan. Good India-Pakistan relations would presage a pacified South Asia, which is a must for India to step up as a great power and credible counterpoise to China in the Indian Ocean, the Gulf region, in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Surely, keeping the larger national good in mind, this is big enough prize and motivation for Modi to sidestep his ingrained anti-Pakistanism, and to convert his Carona initiative by the above means into hard strategic leverage and a raised status for India.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Central Asia, China, Culture, Decision-making, domestic politics, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Indian Politics, Iran and West Asia, Maldives, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Missiles, Nepal, Pakistan, Pakistan military, society, South Asia, Sri Lanka, Weapons, West Asia. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Great (Caronavirus) initiative, turn it into huge strategic gain

  1. Ashok says:

    Dear sir,
    India can be great saviour at this trying times and shri Narendra Modi’s statesmanship will be acknowledged by all world leaders.

  2. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi Bharat sir, just saw your video on Defensive Offence. It was great talk by you.

    Sir my question is regarding Iran. Just like India has initiated SAARC video conference on countering covid-19, similarly India should also come out for a economic aid for Iran (as it is asking for $5 bn). Just like Modi’s new SAARC initiative, if utilized strategically, can be a huge benefit in future, similarly, India’s economic aid to Iran can also make up for the lost ground b/w both nations to some extent.

    What do you think sir???

  3. ankithood says:

    Mr Karnad has unreasonable trust in Pakistan. Perhaps he has bought fake arguments of Pak army regarding what concerns them.. 3 strike corps and all.
    They wish to offend continuously at a level/proportion they can manage. Terror strikes were OK till before Uri. Now that level may go down a bit. But aim will remain the same. There would have already been more Pakistans if there were more Muslim majority provinces. In Kashmir they see one. And no wonder it is volatile. Not to mention humiliation may be part of Pak army curriculum.

    • Mr.Mister says:

      “Not to mention humiliation may be part of Pak army curriculum.”
      It was India which was humiliated in the Pulwama/Balakot incident. There is no proof the strikes killed anybody on Pak’s side, and in the unexpected-in-scale retaliation that came, it was India which lost a plane and a PoW taken… and, let us not forget the incident where the Indian side ran around like headless chicken and shot one of their own helicopters.

      Remember, shoving your noggin firmly up your stink-ole makes one completely delusional. Pakistan hopes there will be many more like you, especially in the army’s elites, and it certainly finds itself none too disappointed. The laugh is on the likes of you.


    Thanks a lot for this wonderful article during these trying times Bharat sir. I though have one querry to make to you. During the video conference (I watched the whole of it on YouTube) both Pakistan and Afghanistan representatives asked the SAARC to seek help from China for winning the battle against corona virus. Do you think this may jeopardize Indian effort to seek natural leadership in this region? I would be glad for your reply.

    • At one level, this suggestion is not unreasonable considering China is both the source of C-virus and in the lead to get its anti-viral antidote. This should prompt Delhi to mount a concerted national effort based on the National Institute of Virology’s work and b the first to patent a remedy.

  5. viggohendrix says:

    I thought, finally thought “saavan ke andha” would see something good in government initiative.
    But how can a Hinduphobe recuse himself from taking a gaumutra jibe? No top Indian leadership or any significant people or for that matter from the right wing has prescribed gaumutra.

    • Surely, rightist ideologues and ideology can withstand a small gaumutra joke. Besides, wasn’t it Athawale, a minister in Modi’s cabinet, who last week led a band of his supporters (one presumes) in chanting “Karuna virus, Go!” for a TV channel?


    Mr. Karnad the COVID-19 is presenting an hitherto unprecedented challenge for the SAARC region. Let’s see it in detail.

    1. At this moment countries like Nepal,Bhutan and Maldives that depend upon India for essential items like food and fuel are struggling since their tourism driven economies are shuttered due to travel bans.

    2. Countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka that also depend upon garments exports will be reeling since their export orders from clients in EU and US have stopped.

    3. Most of these countries would need a healthy and steady supply of COVID-19 test kits as well as a lot more ventilators for their patients.

    4. After six-nine months when the crisis would pass all these countries would need big boost in terms of financial stimulus to their troubled industries as well as a steady support of cheap materials for keeping these struggling industries going as well as help their poor population alive.

    5. Now lets look what we in India can do to help these countries at this moment. Since our factories are shut at this time we are unable to ramp up our production to help these needy countries. Moreover considering India’s size and huge domestic requirement it will be difficult for the government to prioritize tiny countries like Bhutan, Maldives or Nepal at this time.

    6. 6-9 months from now once the crisis is over the government would be busy dealing with the political and economic after effects of the lock down and would have to prioritize domestic industries revamp and recapitalization. The SAARC countries can wait for their turn.

    7. I think the most staunchly pro-India governments like the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh and the Solih govt. in Maldives would be facing tremendous political and economic challenges since their prime sectors of economy like garments export and tourism would have all but collapsed. These governments would be looking towards India for help but may find India pre-occupied with domestic turmoil in the post-lockdown phase.

    7. Only one country then at that moment would be able to help these needy countries would be China since both India as well as the West would be pre-occupied with potential social and economic turmoil after the crisis is over.

    8. China would offer these countries cheap loans and investments in order for their acceptance of the BRI. Pakistan would be the main conduit of China in SAARC and may act as the bridge between China and these countries as we already see in the aggressive way Pakistan is propagating sanctions relief for Iran.

    To conclude, India may feel isolated and marginalized in her own SAARC region if we do not come up with the a solid long-term policy plan for the post-COVID-19 SAARC region. This is my analysis for post-COVID-19 SAARC region.

    Mr. Karnad I would love to know your expert views on my above analysis on the post-COVID-19 SAARC region. Kindly give your advice on what will be India’s answer to China in this regard.

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