In a recent interview, External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar revealed that he began dealing with the United States forty years ago. Indeed, in his professional avatar, Jaishankar has had more experience of handling the India-US relationship than any other Indian diplomat.
He served in the Indian Mission in Washington in the 1980s and led the same Mission as India’s ambassador about three decades later. He also helped in the management of India’s ties with the US from Delhi, at junior and middle-levels in the Ministry of External Affairs and as foreign secretary.
A Test Of Jaishankar’s Professional & Political Mettle
Jaishankar would have gone on many official visits to the US during his assignments in Delhi. As EAM too, Jaishankar went there in 2019, once accompanying Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and a few months later for the 2+2 dialogue.
Never though would Jaishankar have travelled to the US in such trying circumstances in India as he will be doing now; he is making a five-day-long official visit beginning on 24 May.
This time, Jaishankar’s professional as well as his relatively recently-minted political mettle would be tested as never before. This, despite his extensive contacts in the US establishment and the positive consolidation of the India-US relationship, a process to which Jaishankar has personally contributed over the past four decades.
Why Jaishankar’s Past US Visits Were Smooth & He Could Afford to Ignore ‘Liberals’
Modi’s 2019 US visit took place when he was fresh from his Lok Sabha electoral triumph. It will be remembered for the ‘Howdy Modi’ Indian community event in Houston, Texas where, in an unprecedented gesture, his ‘friend’, President Donald Trump, had joined him. Jaishankar had received Trump at the venue. Significantly, there was no cloud on the political horizon for Trump then, and the Democrat party was in disarray.
The India-US strategic partnership was also moving ahead strongly. The Trump administration had not shown any interest in taking issue with India on the constitutional changes of 5 August 2019 in Jammu and Kashmir. While the Indian economy was showing signs of substantial strain, the interest of international business in the India growth story remained high.
All this enabled a confident Jaishankar to show great disdain for US political and media liberal opinion which was particularly unhappy at the then communication restrictions and detentions in J&K.
It was also uneasy with the ideological orientation of the Modi government. Jaishankar refused to engage with the liberals. He held firmly to the view that they were of no consequence to India’s ‘reputation’.
Did India’s ‘Vaccine Maitri’ Initiative Help it Win International Support Amid COVID Crisis?
Jaishankar is now going in the context of the devastating second COVID wave. From a proud supplier of vaccines to the world, it has driven India to changing its policy on taking foreign aid to meet shortfalls in medical supplies.
Horrific reports of people dying in Delhi hospitals’ parking lots waiting for admissions, of oxygen shortages, of queues in crematoriums and graveyards, and of bodies piling up in the Ganga, have filled the international media. And now India desperately needs vaccines.
The international community has shown great sympathy for India, and some of its members have noted that India had helped the world mitigate the impact of COVID by supplying vaccines earlier this year.
Jaishankar and some of his ministerial colleagues have asserted that the international community coming together to offer help to India at this time was, among other measures, due to the ‘Vaccine Maitri’ programme. Further, if India needed some raw materials for manufacturing vaccines, it was obliged to supply vaccines till its own requirements prevented it from doing so.
All these assertions are questionable. But at this stage what is needed is to look to the future to get vaccines and other critical needs to meet the COVID challenge.
Will Jaishankar Be Able to Pursue Pfizer & Moderna to Supply to India?
As per reports, sources in the government claim that Jaishankar’s primary objective during the US visit will be to seek a large number of doses of US vaccines for India. The Biden administration is sympathetic to Indian needs, and is committed to the India-US strategic partnership. Some US stocks of the AstraZeneca vaccine may come to India. However, the question is, whether vaccine companies such as Pfizer and Moderna can be persuaded to overcome their hesitancy to export to India.
Will Jaishankar be in a position to offer legal and other assurances to them? This will be Jaishankar’s acid test — and for the country’s sake, it is hoped that he will succeed in getting US vaccine manufacturers to get over their hesitancy to supply to India.
Also, Jaishankar has to ensure that supplies of some of the raw materials needed to manufacture Indian vaccines are not impeded. For helping India at this critical time, will the US set a price? That question hangs in the air too.
How Will Jaishankar Tackle Questions on India’s COVID Preparedness?
It will be interesting to witness how Jaishankar engages with the US media during his visit. How will he respond to probing questions of India’s preparedness for the second COVID wave? These will surely come if he shows a willingness to engage with the media and liberal political opinion. If he shuns the media and US liberal politicians who have been critical of the Modi government, then that will attract adverse attention in the US.
Four days before he began his US visit, Jaishankar was interviewed on India-China relations during a webinar. He displayed a strange approach in responding to a query on China’s growing influence in India’s neighbourhood.
In his answer, Jaishankar rightly acknowledged that the international relations arena is competitive; countries act to protect interests and enhance influence. He also indicated that as India rises, it will have to face contestation and competition.
With this preface he went on to use these words: “Look, I am fairly confident. I am not a small country; I have my capabilities…” and outlined some capabilities in India’s immediate neighbourhood and the Indian footprint beyond it.
Why Jaishankar Must Engage Liberal Political & Media Opinion
What Jaishankar overlooked was that whenever a representative of a large and successful country needs to remind his interlocutors or his audience of his country’s size and position, he displays a defensive and insecure attitude. Certainly, for a foreign minister to do so is an admission of facing pressure. No major and self-assured country needs to draw attention to its own size and power; it is for others to acknowledge it. Jaishankar would do well to remember this truth.
Jaishankar should also show the wisdom to engage liberal political and media opinion in the US even if it is critical of the Modi government’s ideology, policies and performance. That would be the hallmark of confidence — especially during these testing times of the pandemic.
(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.)