Vaccine nationalism will come gift-wrapped in all the colours of South Asia, except Pakistan

Back in 2005 — a long, long time ago — the US denied then-Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi a visa because of his alleged role in the 2002 riots, in which about a 1,000 people, according to official estimates, were killed. Much water has since flowed under the bridge, with Prime Minister Modi being very warmly hosted by both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and hosting them in turn, in 2016 and 2019 – whatever Obama may say about the BJP’s “divisive nationalism,” in retrospect.

So there must have been something akin to very sweet retribution last week when PM Modi tweeted his distress over the mayhem and violence inside the US Capitol. It’s not him, Modi seemed to be saying, but America’s leaders that need watching out for.
Still, one minor fallout of the US crisis — besides the blow to its reputation as a declining power — is that the permanent removal of Donald Trump (with 88 million followers) from Twitter has made Modi (63 million followers), the most followed political leader in the world.

Certainly, the PM takes his role seriously. Speaking at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas annual event, which applauds the Indian community’s achievements abroad, Modi said India was “ready to save humanity” with its two Made-in-India vaccines.

Modi And His Asia Standing

Prime Minister Modi realises that the world will take him far more seriously – and not just as a leader who keeps silent in the face of “love jihad” atrocities or farmers’ protests – on at least two counts. First, how India is able to stave off the China challenge in Ladakh. And second, to what extent he is also accepted by South Asians as a leader of the region.

That’s why a new South Asia push seems to be in the offing. Unworthy arguments over the last couple of years – describing the Bangladeshis as “termites” over the Citizenship Amendment Act debate, arguing with Nepal over its map which incorporates Indian territories, and of course, continuing its no-dialogue policy with Pakistan – are likely to make 2021 the year India attempted to woo back its neighbourhood.

That’s why, in likely deference to Bangladesh, the CAA rules are not being framed. Why the India-Nepal Joint Commission is finally being held on 15 January so that Nepal foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali can come to town and air his differences. And why External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was sent to Sri Lanka, to talk trade, security – read, China – and vaccines.

So even as India prepares to vaccinate its own population, it is working on leveraging its two Covid-19 vaccines – the made-in-India Covaxin by Bharat Biotech and Covishield, being manufactured by Pune’s Serum Institute – to revamp its ties with its neighbourhood. Vaccine nationalism will come gift-wrapped in all the colours of South Asia – except Pakistan – in the coming weeks.

The Vaccine Diplomacy

It is believed that India will gift about 10 million doses to all the countries in South Asia — Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives — as well as key countries in the extended neighbourhood such as Myanmar, Mauritius and Seychelles.

Several of these vaccine pacts are being finalised in real time, even as China is conducting its own COVID-19 vaccine push into South Asia. On 6 January, an online dialogue organised by the Chinese had five out of eight countries participating – India, Bhutan and the Maldives didn’t.

Globally, China has made no secret about using its five vaccine candidates as instruments for expanding influence. In South East Asia, it has promised vaccines to Malaysia and the Philippines – although Cambodia, a close ally, has said it will opt for the international Covax program. In Dubai, UAE ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum himself volunteered to be part of the trials being conducted by China’s National Biotec Group. While Turkey, Brazil and Mexico have been separately promised millions of doses by the Chinese.

For the time being, at least in terms of pre-orders, Chinese vaccines like Sinovac and Sinopharm (together 500 million doses) are losing the race to Western vaccines like Pfizer (500 million doses) and AstraZeneca (2.5 billion doses).

But this is a long game meant for long-distance runners, and it’s barely begun. The clamour for better health conditions has given a new edge to the foreign policies of nations. The pandemic is, perhaps, forcing us all to adapt to the rules of a brave, new world.