Vaccine Maitri diplomacy boosts India’s global stature

By Simran Sodhi

As the world struggles to deal with the corona pandemic and an economic slowdown, the production and the availability of the corona vaccines globally has been a sigh of relief.  For India, this has also provided it with a great diplomatic opportunity and under the hashtag #VaccineMaitri or Vaccine Friendship, India has been quick to gift vaccines to neighbours in South Asia from Nepal to Bhutan and to also send quick supplies to countries like Brazil, half way across the globe.

India was quick to grasp that this presented it a unique opportunity to show the world that it is not just a manufacturing hub, but also an emerging leader on the global stage which will gift vaccines to smaller nations , supply it to others, even as it starts the herculean task of vaccinating its own population.

India’s strength in this regard comes from the fact that the country, which is also known as the ‘world’s pharmacy’, is home to the Serum Institute of India, which is one of the world’s largest vaccine makers. The Serum Institute has  been producing the AstraZeneca vaccine, which comes with the added advantage that it can be stored at normal refrigerated temperatures and is then easy to transport. Along with it, India’s indigenously produced vaccine, Covaxin made by Bharat Biotech, has resulted in India having two vaccines ready to tackle the pandemic.

India began vaccinating its people some days back, but the diplomatic thrust of sending the vaccine as a gift to many nations was done on the simple calculations that India was manufacturing enough of both the vaccines, for its own population and a surplus then to gift and supply which would earn it good will globally. And the vaccine diplomacy seems to be playing rather well.

Nepal, which in the recent years has had a somewhat strained relationship with India, was all praise for the generous gift from India. Bangladesh was another neighbour that reciprocated with warmth and the hope here is that some of the bilateral tensions will be overlooked, at least for a while. For India, the gift of the vaccine is an opportunity to show not just its South Asian neighbours that it is willing and ready to take up the mantle of regional leadership, but also to send a message globally that India is ready to assert a more powerful role for itself on the world stage.

The Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Seychelles and Sri Lanka have already received shipments of the vaccine. As India received an outpouring of gratitude from these nations, what took social media by the storm was the ‘thank you’ note from the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Expressing his gratitude for the supply of 2 million doses of the Covid 19 vaccine, Bolsonaro tweeted a picture of Hanuman carrying a vaccine from India, borrowing a reference from the Ramayana. The diplomatic gains of this tweet is what today forms the backbone of India’s astute outreach to the global community as it stands ready to share the two vaccines.

One country that India seems to have conveniently forgotten in the neighbourhood is Pakistan. So far, there has been no mention of any vaccine friendship across that particular border. And the messaging here is again quite clear. In recent years, India’s relations with Pakistan have deteriorated sharply and the trust deficit that exists is huge. Pakistan’s close ties with China have further created sharp tensions with India which views the growing Pak-China relationship with suspicion.

As India continues its ambitious #VaccineMaitri mission, China is another country that is being pushed against by India. In recent years, the Chinese footprint in the South Asian neighbourhood has grown and from Colombo to Kathmandu, India felt the pressure to compete with a China that was bigger and richer. The vaccine diplomacy however has given India an upper hand. Bangladesh that was initially in talks with China later turned to India for the vaccine.

For India, supplies don’t seem to be a problem with the Serum Institute of India having  already stockpiled 80 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and churning out 50 million doses a month. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said that, “Today India, with not one but two made in India vaccines, is ready to protect humanity.” Modi also understands that this unique position in the world today gives India an opportunity it has long been seeking. India, by air lifting vaccines to different parts of the globe, is also showing its diplomatic muscle, for only the powerful can make ‘gifts’ to the less fortunate.

(Simran Sodhi is a Delhi-based journalist and analyst who specialises in foreign affairs. In 2009, her book ‘Piercing the Heart-Untold Stories of 26/11’ was published to critical acclaim.  She has written for leading national and international dailies.)


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