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Narendra Modi’s Sisyphean Quest for Global Coronavirus Cooperation

India’s prime minister is pushing for a regional response while facing a growing crisis at home.

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP via Getty Images

On March 13, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted an intriguing offer. “I would like to propose that the leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight Coronavirus,” he said, using the acronym for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. “We could discuss, via video conferencing, ways to keep our citizens healthy. Together, we can set an example to the world, and contribute to a healthier planet.”

On March 13, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted an intriguing offer. “I would like to propose that the leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight Coronavirus,” he said, using the acronym for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. “We could discuss, via video conferencing, ways to keep our citizens healthy. Together, we can set an example to the world, and contribute to a healthier planet.”

It was a striking proposal. Most national leaders haven’t made pitches for regional or more broadly global responses to the pandemic, mainly because they’re too preoccupied with the complex emergency it poses at home. Yet here was Modi doing just that—even as his country confronts a coronavirus challenge that medical experts there warn could produce a “national disaster” in a matter of weeks.

The Indian leader is trying to do two heavy lifts at once: positioning India as a leader in crafting global responses to the coronavirus even while attempting to combat it at home.

Modi convened the SAARC videoconference on March 15 and with participation from all SAARC states—including India’s bitter rival Pakistan. Modi called for the formation of a rapid response team of medical personnel, and he announced an initial $10 million Indian contribution for a new coronavirus emergency fund.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Then, on March 17, Modi spoke by phone with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the current G-20 chair, to broach the possibility of replicating the SAARC videoconference, only this time with the G-20 leadership. (Modi had earlier pitched the idea to Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, another G-20 member.) The online G-20 session took place on March 26.

But this will be a difficult balancing act to pull off, especially with the number of new coronavirus cases rising rapidly in India. Modi has the right idea to be pushing for more global coordination, but the obstacles he faces underscore the limit of multilateralism today—even amid a rapidly spreading pandemic that badly requires a global response.

Modi’s globally focused approach makes a certain sense. New Delhi is keen to assert its importance and place in the world. India is often criticized for punching below its weight—with the implication that it doesn’t do enough operationally to demonstrate that it should be taken seriously as a rising power. By projecting India as a leader in crafting global responses to the coronavirus when others are not stepping up to the plate, Modi can demonstrate that his country is not a global actor to be taken lightly. More broadly, New Delhi can telegraph a message that India is a responsible and collaborative global player with the capacity to spearhead global cooperation to address shared threats.

China, meanwhile, looms large. New Delhi frequently competes with Beijing, its top strategic rival. Since getting the virus under control at home, Beijing has been one of the few governments leading the charge to combat the pandemic abroad. It has provided tens of thousands of supplies to European states and sent medical teams to Iran. It has combined this assistance with robust diplomacy that aims, as described by Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi in a recent Foreign Affairs essay, “to convene dozens of countries and hundreds of officials, generally by videoconference, to share information about the pandemic and lessons from China’s own experience battling the disease.”

India’s global outreach is decidedly more modest than China’s, but it’s more credible—given that it’s bereft of the propagandistic tone, amplified in China’s state-run media, of Beijing’s we-beat-the-virus-and-here’s-how-you-can-too approach. And of course, New Delhi did not suppress information about the virus and enable its spread overseas.

India is quietly trying to make a case for having the capacity to galvanize a global response in the same way as China—as a convener but also a goods provider. Last month, India sent 15 tons of medical supplies to—ironically—China when Beijing was still getting hit hard. This month, it dispatched doctors to the Maldives and more recently Nepal. On the heels of the SAARC videoconference, it is also sending supplies to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka. India’s foreign affairs ministry says it is considering aid requests from Iran and Italy, two of the world’s hardest-hit countries. And Israeli media report that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requested Indian masks and other supplies during a call with Modi in mid-March.

Modi’s efforts to spark international responses to the coronavirus may also be rooted in a desire to alter the way his government is perceived abroad. New Delhi has suffered blow after blow to its global image in recent months following a series of controversial policy moves. These include the revocation of the autonomy of India-administered Kashmir; the passage of a new citizenship law that critics believe discriminates against Muslims; and the government’s silence in the face of India’s most deadly communal violence in several decades. This has garnered negative international media coverage and criticism from political leaders around the world who fear New Delhi is taking the world’s largest democracy in an authoritarian direction.

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Accordingly, the Indian government’s efforts to facilitate global collaboration can be read as a desire to recoup goodwill that international critics believe it has squandered. This is nothing to sneeze at for an Indian prime minister who rehabilitated his global image in a big way during his first term as prime minister after many years of being perceived as a pariah because of his alleged involvement in deadly riots in the state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister, in 2002.

But Modi’s efforts are likely to fall short. While his regional initiative has enjoyed some forward movement, thanks to several SAARC states having pledged modest contributions to the new emergency fund and India’s deployment of assistance to South Asian states, it will inevitably be hobbled by the India-Pakistan spat. During the videoconference, Pakistani Health Minister Zafar Mirza called on India to change its policies in Kashmir in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus there—a comment that didn’t sit well with New Delhi. (The sour look on Modi’s face as Mirza spoke was telling.)

Meanwhile, Modi’s push for the G-20 videoconference could end up benefiting Beijing—a G-20 member with more capital and resources for global outreach than India—by giving it a high-powered forum to amplify its messaging. Furthermore, Modi’s efforts to this point haven’t gone beyond SAARC and the G-20.

More broadly, Modi will struggle to get traction for his global appeals because most countries are understandably too focused on the coronavirus at home to focus on coordinated responses abroad.

In fact, India’s own worsening coronavirus situation could prompt Modi to abandon his global outreach and focus exclusively on the homefront. New Delhi has taken robust measures to curb the transmission of the virus from abroad, including suspending most foreign visas and halting incoming international flights. However, India’s fast-rising increase in new cases in recent days suggests that community transmission has begun.

India presents the perfect storm for the spread of the coronavirus: It suffers from poor public health infrastructure and is densely populated, which makes social distancing difficult to enforce. On March 22, Modi announced that 75 districts in India—comprising some of its most densely populated and hard-hit areas—would be placed under lockdown. On March 23, New Delhi announced that domestic air travel would be grounded. And then, on March 24, Modi declared a three-week, nationwide lockdown—a bold move meant to stem the spread of the virus but also a move that will prove immensely difficult to enforce in a nation of 1.3 billion people.

Against this backdrop of deep coronavirus vulnerability at home, Modi incurs significant risks—in terms of potential economic, public health, and political costs—if he accords too much policy space to global responses. He could end up being Nero fiddling abroad while Rome burns at home. Already, critics of Modi claim his let’s-work-together pitch to the world is merely a public relations stunt to place the prime minister in the global spotlight.

Even though Modi’s efforts may fall short, they’re significant because they underscore his government’s support for pursuing multilateralism in a world where it is sorely lacking.

On Feb. 20, India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, spoke to his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, and commended him for the Alliance for Multilateralism—a German-led forum initiated in 2019 and comprising several dozen countries but conspicuously silent throughout the coronavirus crisis. In his conversation with Maas, Jaishankar said, “We believe multilateralism should be recognized, it should be preserved, it should be protected.”

These sentiments are not shared by the Trump administration, which has heaped scorn on major multilateral organizations (NATO, the United Nations) and withdrawn from some of the international community’s signature products (the Paris climate accords, the Iran nuclear deal). Still, there is an opportunity here for Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Jaishankar by phone on March 14 about how the two countries can work together to combat the coronavirus. This came just a few weeks after President Donald Trump’s visit to India, which produced a joint statement that called for the two sides to increase cooperation on managing disease outbreaks.

If the coronavirus provides any geopolitical silver lining for Washington, it’s the possibility for more partnership with New Delhi. With the Trump administration shrugging off multilateralism as a vehicle to combat the pandemic, the next best option is a bilateral approach—especially one that encourages a global response that isn’t dominated by a shared Chinese rival.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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