The sight of asphyxiating patients thrashing about on the floors of barely-there hospitals brought the world to India’s door. Over the last few weeks, as India has struggled to cope with the second Covid wave, foreign friends have delivered much-needed lifelines. These oxygen cylinders and oxygenators are helping us tide over the greatest irony: They’re supplying the breath of life to suffering Indians living in a country that produces so much oxygen that it exports it.
The sights of the sick intubated by foreign cylinders of charity have drawn gasps of derision from the government’s critics. In the hands of the opposition India’s reliance on foreign aid has become a handy visual metaphor to buttress its main theme: In seven years the Modi government has taken India back to an impoverished and dependent past.
While the optics are certainly ripe for political picking, the opposition is missing the point. Aid, whether received or offered, should be divorced from national pride. In a disaster there’s no need to gloat about contributing to or feel shame in drinking from the trough of human kindness. If anything, it is reassuring to think that humanity still desires to help unconditionally. A world without compassion is a world without the bonds that hold civilisation together: Religion, family and law to name a few.
There are, however, other more apt examples that serve as a warning to those in government who yoked ‘atmanirbharta’ to national exceptionalism. More than once the Centre has used the pandemic as a backdrop to underscore how India has emerged as a self-sufficient power that the world can take inspiration from. There’s no doubt that over the last year we’ve built up capacities at an admirable pace, but to have certified ourselves as the ‘most successful country in saving lives’ was to let hubris script the endgame.
Unfortunately, this has locked the country into a veritable trade tamasha. After it became belatedly obvious that vaccine rollout wasn’t going to keep pace with requirement, the Centre cleared a demand from states to procure jabs from the open market. Now several states are competing to bargain with vaccine producers who hold the cards in a supplier’s market. Many have realised that they might have been better off letting the Centre strike the deal. Now, turned away by suppliers or forced to pay an arm and a leg, they are desperate. Will the cost of purchasing the vaccine end up being more than the costs imposed by other efforts (lockdowns) to contain the virus? One hopes not.
Millions of doses of vaccines are needed urgently to guarantee India’s economic security. A government less consumed with its national image would have signed advance procurement contracts with leading international vaccine manufacturers to ensure adequate stocks. Instead, NDA chose to depend on just two indigenous companies. While it’s a matter of both pride and satisfaction that Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech are Indian, it’s also true that for no fault of their own, both are finding it difficult to keep up with demand.
Over the years NDA has demonstrated a tendency towards national exceptionalism, a prideful atmanirbharta. While frustrating the US or even the EU over concluding a tariff agreement or staying out of RCEP may excite the BJP’s core base, it galls the globalists. And the Covid crisis has arguably accelerated what appears to be an inward retreat.
The strategic imperative to shorten supply chains and boost local production has inspired protectionist trade and tariff policies. Some other steps seem to have drawn their inspiration from the once again fashionable swadeshi exhortation, ‘vocal for local’. Experts widely fear a return to something akin to import substitution, a relic of the command-and-control economic past.
But, with the second surge exposing India’s vulnerability, the carefully curated image of a country that is decreasing its reliance on the world has been shaken. The Modi government has had no choice but to dispatch envoys to pull diplomatic strings abroad just to get countries and companies to boost India’s vaccine output.
India even patiently waits in the court of WTO, hoping for a receptive hearing on a plea seeking a waiver on medical technology related patents. The Covid crisis has forced the government to swallow a bitter pill: If India is to succeed in creating atmanirbhar business behemoths at home, it will have to increase and not decrease its integration with global value chains.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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