The Modi government sent an SOS to the Biden White House almost three weeks back. Adar Poonawala of the Serum Institute — the largest producer of vaccines in the world with global sales of 1.5 billion doses of vaccines for every malady ranging from Polio, Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, Hib, BCG, r-Hepatitis B, Measles, Mumps and Rubella, with high-tech production capacity of 500 containers per minute, pleaded with the US President via Twitter to release raw materials for making the Astra-Zeneca Covid vaccine. All that has happened in response so far is that Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and all the other Administration biggies have clucked in sympathy and expressed their “solidarity” with India and Indians. Much good that will do India or the 350,000 Indians daily detected as virus stricken and the almost 3,000 Indians dying all over the country every day.
Even as the US government sits on its hands it has, according to newsreports, stockpiled covid vaccines in government depots, in other words, it is hoarding, over 100 million doses — which it isn’t releasing for use abroad just in case there’s a surge need for them within America. It is rushing oxgen concentrators, ventilators and similar stuff but not the 37 raw materials the ‘Economist’ has identifed as needed by India — and the Serum Institute in particular — to bulk produce the vaccine. The reason for this blockage is that Biden has invoked the Defence Poduction Act for vaccine manufacture, which means the needed raw materials can only be deployed as priority to speedily meet domestic production requirements, and cannot be diverted to India or any other country.
Meanwhile, Pfizer and other vaccine producers, espying huge profit, want the US government to go the World Trade Organization route to fix vaccine prices and to protect intellectual property rights. What this means in practice is that Serum Institute will be starved of the raw materials and the vaccine production will soon grind to a stop at its facility in Pune once the current stock of ingredients runs out. Biden can short circuit this lengthy WTO negotiating process, but won’t for the simple reason that he does not want to rub the wealthy pharma industry, intent on making money, the wrong way.
Where does that leave our dear leader, Narendra Modi, who has worn his love for America on his sleeve? He has advisers around him, like External Affairs Minister Jaishankar, who won’t hesitate to push India into the US camp whatever the opportunity or occasion, and at whatever cost to the country. Washington may be thinking along the same lines and may extort, say, an Indian military role in Afghanistan or seek activation, as some have speculated, of the Logistics Support Agreement to embark US Special Forces from Indian bases for operations against the Afghan Taliban after September 11 when the American military presence in that country is formally zeroed out. This would be in exchange for release of covid vaccine raw materials.
The reason such a deal is very possible is because of the realist, transactional, nature of US foreign policy and the unvarying American attitude to the world which, I for one, have long admired, and which I have held up for GOI-MEA to emulate. There’s no place here for sentiment, for emotions, for fellow feeling — there’s just the unvarnished fact of the National Interest, and nothing else, and any and all means are usable to further it. Realizing the national interest by this reckoning is a zero sum game, and as Biden sees it, reduced stocks of raw material could come back to bite him politically were the pandemic to skyrocket again in the US requiring heightened emergency production of vaccines at home. Biden is covering all contingencies that could potentially impact the US and get him in hot water.
This sort of thinking is entirely foreign — pun intended — to GOI, which begins planning for a any catastrope after it has occurred, in the case of the Covid pandemic only after several thousand people had met their doom. And then the bureaucratism and the centre-states tussles take over. Consider the rough sequence of the pandemic reaction by the Government. After the first complete country-wide lockdown, India was among the few countries that seemed to have contained the virus. It led to Modi’s shipping the vaccines in stock to all over the developing world per World Health Organization guidelines. It resulted in Modi and India winning a lot of friends and encomiums. But, more dangerously, it triggered the complacency that is always just below the surface where the Indian government is concerned and which is the bane of the Indian system. No sooner was there the barest glimmer of success then Modi and the entire top ranks of GOI were cock-a-hoop and short of publicly high-fiving everybody in sight, radiating self-satisfaction.
And then the real Covid Tsunami hit which the GOI had neither foreseen nor prepared for. Worse, the state carried on as if nothing was amiss — with literally millions milling in the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad and election campaigns proceeding at pace in West Bengal and elsewhere — perfect mediums for the rapid spread of the virus throughout the length and breadth of the nation.
Confronted wiith an unfolding disaster Modi did the first thing he could think of — call on the United States for immediate help, confident that American planes would, without hesitation, be winging loads of the raw material to the Serum Institute and other production facilities. Hopefully, the Prime Minister now knows better that America makes haste only when its tail is in the wringer, not when India’s is. Washington is already talking about the response timeframe of months, not days, leave alone weeks — for the main items — the raw materials to be officially released and airlifted. By then, who knows what the human toll in India will be? And how much good it will do?
At a minimum, Modi should heed what this analyst has been warning for decades in his books and other writings — that to construct an Indian foreign policy edifice on the strategic partnership with the US is to build on a foundation of quick sand, where Indian contingencies are involved. But it is also to setup an automatic positive response-cum-pressure system India will be subjected to anytime Washington calls on Delhi for any assistance or help which, if they aren’t immediately complied with, will instantly trigger punitive US actions.
Assuming Jaishankar knows this, it is unlikely he has communicated any reservations — “Time to rethink our US policy”-kind of advice to the Prime Minister. But Modi should rely on his own political instincts and not bank on foreign countries to pull India out of the mess it peridocally gets itself into. Atm-nirbharta is so far mainly a mantra endlessly repeated without anybody in government or outside of it having the faintest idea of what it means. Modi should start by making the country self-sufficient in base pharma materials and chemical industrial necessities and incentivise their manufacture at home to ensure India does not again have to have its begging bowl out.
In the current crisis, GOI and its agencies, including the military, are filled with officials with scant knowledge of the US and how the American system actually works, in the main because, like all Third World officious types, they can’t get beyond the lure of America if not for themselves than for their children — green cards by hook or crook! — and hence, by habit, don pink-coloured glasses when viewing the US, including its invariably tardy reactions to life or death issues facing other countries.
The antidote to this raging Yankeeitis — and this, I admit, is derived solely from my personal experience — is exposure to America at an early age — in my case at the undergrad level. One then begins to understand the “belly of the beast”. But equally I began to appreciate just why the realpolitik the US unapologetically practices with weak states and strong alike is absolutely the right thing to do in a perennially unsettled and disorderly world. Having heard and interacted with American strategic realm heavyweights in graduate seminars at UCLA and in the larger California Arms Cntrol Seminar in the early to mid 1970s — and over 50 years since then, what has always impressed was their crystal-cut clarity of thinking, their precision when processing information and data, analytically dissecting situations and policies, and when proposing just as clear-headed solutions, which may not always be right but serves the US interest of the moment.
The world doesn’t change all that fast. Trust no big power to do the right thing by India, keep distance from all major states, do not sign any agreement that India is not ready to violate, and use the policy space that is thus created to maximize the benefits — are principles the Modi government and the MEA and military more generally should fruitfully follow, certainly when dealing with America.
Then there will be absolutely no reason for Delhi to trust in the US or be disappointed in case it does something unexpected, or even adverse, and less reason for Washington to be disappointed by anything India does in its own, singular, National Interest.