[This is Part-II 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. You can read Part-I here.]
Excerpts from the interview with Indira Basu, Assistant Editor, Op-Ed, The Quint, below:
The Quint: China and Pakistan — countries that India has been in conflict with for a while, especially in recent years — have also offered help today. How should India respond to them?
Pavan K Varma: I think my own feeling is that Pakistan, grappling with its own fast-spreading status of the pandemic, is hardly in a position to help. Nor is China probably sincere in its offer — but I want to make an essential point: when your house is on fire, you accept offers of water from any source. And we must evaluate independent offers on merit. It is not, for instance, that we do not have very substantial trade relations with China. China still continues to be a major economic partner notwithstanding tensions on the border and China’s attempt to dominate India. So, if China is in a position to provide us urgently-needed medical supplies or even raw materials for vaccines, we should welcome it. Right now, we must be clear on what our goals are. Our goal is to mitigate the crisis within the country. People are dying in swarms...gasping for oxygen... dying for lack of medical supplies. We need to contain this crisis, and provide succour to our people — for that, help from any source is useful and should be utilised.
‘Our Govt Wasn’t Internally Prepared For the Viciousness of the 2nd Wave’
The Quint: Even Germany and the UK, with whom we share strong ties, have reached out. Why didn’t we approach them earlier? In fact, it is believed that we declined help from private players too, in the UK.
Pavan K Varma: I don’t believe the government was internally prepared for the viciousness of the second wave. Therefore, our outreach to other nations to be of assistance — which was needed — was also tardy or negligent or absent. If we did not set up the requisite number of oxygen plants in our own country in accordance with pre-identified targets, why would we — when we take so much pride in being called the pharmacy of the world — reach out to other countries? It was an act of both bungling and of Hubris. And I have no hesitation in saying this. Countries which foresaw what could happen would have not only ramped up the internal preparation for meeting the second wave, but would have gone out well in time to other countries for the assistance they required.
‘India, in All Humility, Must Welcome All Foreign Outreach’
The Quint: How would you describe India’s international position now — against the backdrop of our national emergency and being at the behest of foreign aid?
Pavan K Varma: I think that many countries will take the requisite steps, which prudence dictates, in order to prevent the spread of the pandemic from India to their own borders or shores — (such as the temporary sealing of borders). That is understandable. But I am happy to also acknowledge that there has been an outpouring of goodwill for India to assist, and I think India, in all humility, should welcome it.
‘India’s Heft in Diplomacy Wasn’t Produced Overnight’
The Quint: Can we say that the huge international outreach towards India during this national crisis is a reflection of India’s ‘strong’ foreign policy and diplomatic endeavours?
Pavan K Varma: I think that India’s foreign policy is not something contingent to one government or the other. We are the world’s largest democracy, we are a nuclear weapon power. We are one of the largest markets for the world. We are a growing economy with one of the highest purchasing power parities in the world. We are 1.3 billion people. So, India’s heft in diplomacy is not a magic wand that was produced overnight, but which is something which is acknowledged by the rest of the world and which has taken time to build up over several decades starting from 1947. So countries really acknowledge the importance of India, and it should not become a subject of partisan proprietorship over who has succeeded in foreign policy — because foreign policy itself is a continuum.
India Must Prioritise COVID Crisis — All Diplomatic Outreach Must Be Based On This Need
The Quint: Given that the pandemic presents an uncertain future, and one in which we may continue to need some sort of external support in different areas, what should be our foreign policy approach going forward?
Pavan K Varma: Well, I think that now that we have seen where we went wrong internally, and we have no option but to recognise the immediate priorities and perhaps the mid-term priorities of a better health infrastructure system, and at minimum, the requisite dosage of vaccine — all our foreign policy must be geared towards achieving these goals.
I cannot stop reiterating the fact that foreign policy does not exist in a void; foreign policies of countries are in response to the situation within their own borders, and the strength, competence, or incompetence they bring to the table.
India’s priorities in the near future must remain that of containing the pandemic, and its outreach to other countries must be based on this overriding priority.