US COVID Aid to India: What Our Vaccine Diplomacy ‘Didn’t Achieve’

Author & former diplomat Pavan K Varma speaks to The Quint on US aid to India & foreign policy amid COVID crisis.

6 min read
Image of US President Biden used for representational purposes.

[This is Part-I of a two-part telephonic interview with former diplomat, author and former Rajya Sabha MP Pavan K Varma, in the backdrop of an outpouring of international aid to India during the devolving COVID crisis in the country.]

Excerpts from the interview with Indira Basu, Assistant Editor, Op-Ed, The Quint, below:

The Quint: There seems to be little clarity on whether India reached out to the US for aid on its own, amid a devolving public health emergency. And the US’s ‘own interest’ in being charitable towards India.

Pavan Varma: There is a fundamental point I wish to make, which is that, the foreign policy of any country is based in order to be successful; not on internal weaknesses, but on internal strengths. India’s real problem — and I will come to the United States shortly — is the fact that it did not delineate, outline, elaborate, clarify or project a clear-cut vaccine diplomacy. By that I mean, that any country — which knows that it will be needing vaccines, that it may perhaps need equipment, and if it had prepared for it, medical equipment, and if it had prepared for it accordingly — would not be in a position whereby it would be forced to assess what has been the caliber and quality of foreign response.


What Should India’s ‘Vaccine Diplomacy’ Have Been?

“Firstly, what should be the constituents of that vaccine diplomacy? Without doubt, India, as the largest country in South Asia, does have a responsibility to some of its smaller neighbours and some amount of vaccines to be gifted, sold, exported to our immediate neighbourhood is understandable.”
Pavan K Varma to Indira Basu, The Quint
“I have been ambassador to Bhutan in the past, and I know that Bhutan would be dependent on certain vaccine supplies from India, but the population of the country is small and this requirement could be easily fulfilled, but if we have sold, gifted away or exported 66 million vaccine doses in the past, if after the declaration of a national disaster on 14 March 2020, we took eight months to tender the setting up of oxygen plants, and if out of the 166 or 163 that were to be set up, only 32 are functional, we are making foreign policy and the response of other countries — we are attempting to make that an alibi to our own incompetence and lack of anticipation and preparedness for the oncoming crisis of the second wave.”
Pavan K Varma to Indira Basu, The Quint

‘Let’s Ditch Double Standards With Regard to US’

“Now, as far as the United States is concerned, we should eschew double standards. On the one hand, we say to our country, that the priority of Indians comes first. On the other hand, we berate the United States — under the invocation of the Defense Act, the US was primarily concerned in the first instance for the welfare of its own citizens. I am happy, though, that the matter has been somewhat resolved. There was a tsunami of outrage on social media in India, on the fact that America was initially reluctant to part with almost 40 million doses of AstraZeneca on which it was sitting and was unlikely to use it. There was also the main, urgent need for ventilators and oxygen, and essential medical supplies like that of Remdesivir.”
Pavan K Varma to Indira Basu, The Quint
“We also needed from America the raw materials that needed to be supplied to vaccine-producers in India like the Serum Institute (SII). So I am happy that America has now changed its earlier stance, which I believe, in the context of American priorities, was understandable. And we should not judge America by standards which we don’t apply to ourselves, and would like our leadership not to apply to itself. But I am happy that America has seen it fit that, in spite of prioritising its own people, it should come to the aid of India and we should welcome it.”
Pavan K Varma to Indira Basu, The Quint

COVID Crisis & Diplomacy: Why India Should Have Planned Much In Advance

“So, what should vaccine diplomacy be in today’s time? I have already mentioned that the neighbourhood is a special priority and we have to abide by the expectations of, and the strategic interests involved, in dealing with the neighbourhood. Apart from that, from the very beginning, our vaccine diplomacy should have been geared to buying as many extra doses of vaccines as were available, as indeed, some countries like the United Kingdom did. Of ensuring raw materials for the productions of vaccine in our country. Of encouraging foreign partnerships with indigenous producers in India to produce the required number of vaccines, and for leveraging our goodwill with countries — in case there was a requirement for urgent medical equipment such as we now see. If we had in place the broad contours of a vaccine diplomacy, and if we had begun the process well in time — even before the second wave was upon us — and if we had taken the requisite measures for our own self-sufficiency, including by setting up the targeted number of oxygen plants, and not indiscriminately exporting, drifting or selling vaccines to the rest of the world where we do not have strategic interests — I believe that that would have been vaccine diplomacy.We would not be seeking to find — in foreign responses — an alibi for our internal incompetence.”
Pavan K Varma to Indira Basu, The Quint

Did US ‘Buckle’ Under Pressure & Reach Out to India With Aid?

The Quint: There has been much chatter about the US ‘buckling’ under pressure to come to the aid of its strategic partner India. Is the US indeed ‘serving its own interest’?

Pavan Varma: ... The first argument is that America came under pressure not only by how Indians reacted to their lack of cooperation but because there is an influential lobby within America for Indian interests, consisting largely of successful people of Indian origin and the NRI community. But also because India and America are the two most influential democracies in the world and there is a lobby within America that believes that, to come to the aid of India is good, strategic policy. So, partially that is true. I don’t believe America can be pressurised. It is an act of volitional goodwill. Donald Trump gave us ventilators at a time when his country was going through a major crisis in handling the coronavirus epidemic, and we gave them Hydroxychloroquine in large numbers in order to be of assistance to them. This is a good precedent. However, to believe that America was “pressurised” by us, and that, within the strategic establishment of America there was no volitional rethink, I think would be wrong.


Foreign Aid to India: ‘Overpowering & Visible Goodwill on the Part of Many Countries’

“As far as helping India to “help itself” — it’s a generic problem. Of course, India constitutes a very large population in the world, and if Indians are better able to cope up with this crisis, it will contribute to the global success in fighting against the virus. That could be a factor as well. However, the most important point we have to understand, is that a country like India incorporates internal competencies in the crafting of effective foreign policy. It must give it enough gestation time and begin early, and it must have clear-cut goals as to what it hopes to achieve through that vaccine diplomacy. If these are lacking, then I am afraid it becomes an ad hoc response to individual countries, and what they do for India or don’t.”
Pavan K Varma to Indira Basu, The Quint
“There is an overpowering, visible, verifiable goodwill on the part of countries across the globe. From the US to the EU, to Japan, to Germany to France — to some of the countries in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where people are coming forward to help. But the whole picture of India — unprepared, standing with a begging bowl, is not a very edifying one.”
Pavan K Varma to Indira Basu, The Quint

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