India’s Foreign Policy Amid COVID: Why Govt & Oppn Shouldn’t Spar

The Indian political class must show maturity and set a worthy example for all Indians in this time of distress.

4 min read
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At a time when the Indian political class should stand united to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, it is engaged in its favourite pastime — petty bickering and point scoring. This was illustrated, once again, in the recent exchange of tweets between External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and senior Congress leader and former minister Jairam Ramesh.

Obviously, the latter took a dig at the Ministry of External Affairs without ascertaining facts, while the latter could have given a minister-like restrained response but didn’t.

The issue: the supply of the oxygen cylinders by Youth Congress volunteers to the New Zealand High Commission and the Philippines Embassy in Delhi.


How Embassies in India Have Been Hit Due to COVID

The foreign diplomatic corps and its Indian staff in Delhi has also been hit, like the rest of the city’s residents, by what Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described as the ‘storm’ of the second COVID wave.

According to a news report, the Defence Adviser of Tanzania, Colonel Dr Moses Beatus Mlula, succumbed to COVID on 28 April 2021. His death occurred at the Army Base Hospital. The New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern herself confirmed that “a local staff member who has been in the compound who has been very unwell”. Local staff members are not diplomats. Very often, local staff are local nationals. Almost all embassies consider local staff as members of the Mission family.

It seems that the New Zealand High Commission decided that the staff member should be treated in its premises. For this purpose, it needed oxygen supplies. Reports indicate that it tweeted requesting the Youth Congress for a cylinder of oxygen.

The organisation obliged but tweeted about it. It was wrong of the New Zealand High Commission to not approach the MEA on how to deal with the case of the local staff member. That is what the New Zealand prime minister has also indirectly acknowledged.


Age of Outrage: Why Not Fact-Check First?

The Youth Congress also sent cylinders of oxygen to the Philippines embassy. It’s not clear, as yet, for what purpose these were sent. According to a press report, it claims that it did so because someone asked them to do this on behalf of the Philippines embassy.

The Youth Congress made its actions public through a tweet.

At this stage, Jairam Ramesh got into the act. He thanked the Youth Congress for its “stellar act” in a tweet. He went on to add that “as an Indian I’m proud that the youth wing of the opposition party is attending to SOS calls from foreign embassies. Is the MEA sleeping @DrSJaishankar”? Instead of taking to Twitter, it would have been appropriate for Jairam Ramesh to check the facts with the MEA. That can be expected of an experienced former minister and senior political leader.

But we live in an age when no one including a leader who is a distinguished author has the patience to go into details. The temptation to grab a headline is simply too great.

Jaishankar’s ‘Political Response’ to Jairam Ramesh: Where Is the Restraint?

Jaishankar gave a ‘political’ response to the Jairam Ramesh tweet. He ignored the Youth Congress giving a cylinder to the New Zealand High Commission but claimed that the MEA had checked with the Philippines embassy. Interestingly, the minister did not categorically say that the Philippines embassy told the MEA that this was an unasked-for supply; but he hinted it was so.

Jaishankar’s tweet says, “MEA checked with the Philippines embassy. This was an unsolicited supply as they had no COVID cases”. On its part, the Philippines embassy has not commented on the matter as yet.

Jaishankar went ahead to tweet that it was “appalling” to give away oxygen cylinders when “there are people in desperate need of it”. This is factually correct. Finally, he asserted that the MEA never “sleeps” or “fakes”.

It can be said that Jaishankar gave as good as he got, but the question is if today is the time for such give and take. That would be fine as the stuff of normal politics in normal times, but at this stage it would be appropriate for all political leaders to exercise self-restraint. This is a time for the political class to stand united and firm. That would be a signal of Indian resolve and determination to combat the pandemic despite the current difficulties.


Whither Discretion & Diplomacy?

The MEA gave a diplomatic response to the controversy. It clarified that its officers were in contact with foreign missions and were helping them with their medical needs, including those related to COVID. This also related to requirements of hospitals as well. The fact that the Tanzanian Defence Adviser, who sadly died of COVID, was in a military hospital shows that the government is doing what it can.

At the same time, it can be expected that foreign missions will do what they think is appropriate to look after their personnel. The US has advised its nationals to leave India, and there is no doubt that this would cover their mission personnel as well. They will take steps for such evacuation without publicity.

Some other foreign missions would have taken such steps in all likelihood too. This is also because the protocols these missions have for the medical needs of their diplomatic personnel cannot be met at this stage.

The MEA also advised “all” to not “hoard essential supplies, including oxygen”. While there can be no objection to such advice, the way it has been given publicly is unusual. Normally it would have been conveyed discreetly through diplomatic channels.

The political controversy has precipitated the public caution to foreign missions. Was it necessary to do so?

All this makes it all the more necessary for the Indian political class to show maturity and set a worthy example for all Indians in this time of distress.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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