The COVID-19 pandemic poses a formidable challenge for governance across the world and requires multifaceted actions by governments at the sub-national and national level, as well as cooperation at the regional and global level. India has been performing well on these aspects.
The objective behind India’s Corona-diplomacy over the last few weeks is based on a two-point agenda: to protect people at home and to help its neighbouring countries and friends.
This has been executed through the following strategy.
A friendly Neighbourhood: A virtual summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) member nations was held at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s behest, on 15 March 2020. It led to the quick allocation of an emergency fund for SAARC nations and the collaboration of health professionals and trade ministers from member countries. India also led a successful initiative to provide medicines, medical equipment, medical personnel and technical information to all SAARC member countries, except Pakistan.
Two developments followed the initial summit. First, Sunil Motiwal, CEO of the SAARC Development Fund, proposed $5 million to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on SAARC members. This has not yet been allocated and individual governments will decide the best way to utilise the funds. Second, Pakistan belatedly announced a contribution of $3 million. This, however, will be administered through the SAARC secretariat and is not part of the emergency fund.
A friendly world: India’s quick decision to permit exports of Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and Paracetamol to the USA and Brazil, as well as Mauritius and Seychelles was well received. India also exported medicines to the Dominican Republic and developed nations such as Germany, Spain and Canada. These actions were acknowledged and appreciated on the world stage.
Phone outreach: Less noticed but equally impactful, were the telephone conversations the Prime Minister had with select world leaders across North America, Europe, the Gulf, Asia and Africa. The Prime Minister has been actively connecting with the world leaders in the face of this unprecedented crisis. India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, has also maintained regular communication with his counterparts.
Multilateral forums: It was India’s efforts that led to the G20 holding its first virtual summit on 26 March 2020. Although the meeting failed to produce a clear plan of action, a statement has been issued and follow-up discussions at the ministerial level are continuing. The 15 April meeting of G20 finance ministers and central bank governors has come forward with a G20 Action Plan.
The recent World Bank report estimates that growth in South Asia may fall between 1.8% and 2.8% in 2020, down from the 6.3% initially projected. This underlines the gravity of the situation for South Asia. Policy makers will need to carefully chart their way to manage the impending crises.
The resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly and the statement of the UN Security Council in the wake of the pandemic have shown the growing inadequacy of the UN as an effective multilateral institution. The Indian government has done its part in calling for ‘a new globalisation’ and has stressed the need for reform of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The diaspora: India’s human-centric diplomacy places a premium on arranging the emergency evacuation of Indian nationals from countries that are seriously affected by the pandemic. Between Air India and the Indian Air Force, about 3,000 people have been evacuated since March 2020.
Additionally, the evacuation of foreign nationals stranded in India, has not been ignored and India’s cooperation with Australia, Canada, Italy, Germany and several other nations has been acknowledged. Cumulatively India has evacuated over 28,000 people as of 11 April 2020.
The Indian Prime Minister’s videoconference with Indian heads-of-mission around the world, on 30 March 2020, was another important diplomatic initiative. The five-point advisory issued came as a morale booster and also offered a practical set of instructions for Indian ambassadors stationed abroad.
The effort and message is clear: India’s careful diplomacy reflects a balance between the country’s values and interests.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former ambassador with extensive diplomatic experience. He is a former director general of the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA).
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 Rajiv Bhatia, ‘Preparing for SAARC 2.0’, The Hindu, 7 April 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/preparing-for-saarc-20/article31273813.ece
 G20 Information Center, University of Toronto, http://www.g20.utoronto.ca/2020/2020-g20-finance-0415.html
 Prime Minister’s video conference with the Heads of Indian Missions, Ministry of External Affairs, 30 March 2020, https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32605/Prime_Ministers_video_conference_with_the_Heads_of_Indian_Missions