One should not be surprised if it turns out that the White House wanted India to agree to some quid-pro-quo for API. The jury is still out on this

by Seshadri Chari

Whatever be the reason for the delay in releasing the supply of raw materials for India’s pharmaceutical industry, the US has not covered itself in glory. The initial denial, reluctance in respecting the urgency and subsequent relenting has painted the Joe Biden administration in a very poor light, to say the least. The belated decision to divert part of its own supplies of raw materials to the Serum Institute of India and the deployment of a “strike team” of experts from the Centres for Disease Control are acts that will evoke a ‘thank you’ but the hold-up and initial hesitation cannot be forgotten, or forgiven.

The two National Security Advisors, India’s Ajit Doval and US’ Jake Sullivan, resolved the matter amicably. The US finally recognised the fact that it was India that came to its rescue in the initial days of the pandemic when its hospitals “were strained”.

India had sought immediate supply of raw materials for the production of the Covishield vaccine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that the US is closely working with New Delhi and “will rapidly deploy additional support to the people of India and India’s health care heroes”.

New Realities

Both New Delhi and Washington DC are fully aware of the need for the two democracies to work closely in the fight against the pandemic. In fact, joint effort in the fight against Covid-19 has to be extended to other areas as well. The whole new paradigm of the Indo-Pacific has to be understood in the face of these new realities.

There were enough indications and warnings from experts that a second wave of the deadly virus will attack India with much greater force, infecting millions. The Narendra Modi government did prepare well in advance to meet such a challenge. But the new variant of the mutant seems to have caught India unawares. Suddenly, hospital beds are scarce, artificial oxygen supply shortage acute and vaccine centres out of supplies. It is in this background that New Delhi pressed the panic button.

There are reports suggesting that Pfizer had offered to supply enough vaccines for the entire population of India but the Union government imposed certain conditions resulting in the offer being withdrawn in February. It now transpires that this particular vaccine was not tested in India and the manufacturers were not ready for bridge trials. Besides, its storage would have been difficult and it was priced too high. The fact that it was not a string-free offer seems to be clear. Incidentally, on 19 February, President Biden visited the 1,300-acre API, DP and other medical equipment production facility of Pfizer at Kalamazoo in Michigan and reiterated his administration’s resolve to invoke the Defence Production Act (DPA), initially used by the Donald Trump administration to hasten vaccine production for the second wave of Covid-19.

The DPA is a Korean War-era law enacted in 1950 that provides the POTUS with enormous powers to allocate “materials, services, and facilities” and award contracts that take priority over any other contract to “promote the national defence.” After Trump, Biden is now using this law to defend the country against the coronavirus pandemic, which, in other words, is a biological war inflicted on the world. Since the DPA also allows the US administration to bar companies from exporting their products in extreme situations, Biden can claim to be well within his rights to deny API and other raw material to India.

As a result, the urge to uphold this ‘America First’ policy has given a handle to India bashers to taunt the Quad experiment, saying the Quad meeting on “vaccine weaponizing” has left India alone and isolated.

Old Trick In US Book

Apart from the DPA, the US is not averse to using such situations to exert pressure on aid recipients to tweak their domestic and international policies to suit American security and economic interests. The American wheat that Indians got in mid-sixties under PL 480 (US Public Law 480) was not all that free because, as the adage goes, there is no free lunch in America. It is a different matter that we stuck to our policy of non-alignment (and refused to join the US camp during the Cold War and jettison the Soviet Union) and also laid the foundations for a successful green revolution.

This time around, one should not be surprised if the White House wanted India to agree to some kind of a quid-pro-quo for the raw materials and aid. The jury is still out on this. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tweeted about the excellent conversation he had with his ‘friend’ President Vladimir Putin. “I thanked President Putin for Russia’s help and support in India’s fight against the Pandemic”, the tweet says. Both countries have agreed to establish a 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue between foreign and defence ministers. This should further confirm that India’s commitment of the S-400 deal with Russia seems to stand firm irrespective of what the US may feel about it or invoking CAATSA.

The Biden administration will have to come out of the Cold War-era mindset and accept new realities. Much of the success of the Quad and a new rules-based world order will depend on India’s strength and increased capabilities, based on its self-reliance. But all this, not before the world comes out of the pandemic, tackles the Covid-19 virus and puts a price on the originator of the crisis.