Einat Elazari from Wikistrat interviewed Poornima B and Niranjan Marjani, experts in India’s foreign and domestic affairs, to discuss the internal and external impacts of COVID -19 on India in Wikistrat's latest podcast episode.
The second wave of coronavirus infections to hit India has been devastating. At one point, India was responsible for more than half of the world’s daily COVID-19 cases and recorded about 400,000 cases in a single day. The situation has been exacerbated by only a tiny portion of the population being fully vaccinated.
The impact of the pandemic on India was seen both domestically and regionally. India promoted coordination in its immediate neighborhood amidst the first wave. However, the second wave has led India to prioritize its own interests, as was showcased in Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar’s recent visit to the US, which included ensuring vaccine production and distribution as well as the quest for an intellectual property rights waiver on vaccines.
What are the short- and long-term implications on India’s politics, economy, and society? What further actions to mitigate the crisis can we expect to see from India’s leadership? Einat Elazari from Wikistrat interviewed Poornima B and Niranjan Marjani, experts in India’s foreign and domestic affairs, to discuss this in Wikistrat's latest podcast episode.
Poornima Balasubramanian is a PhD research scholar & TMA Pai Fellow at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal, India. Her research interests include the Geopolitics of the Middle East, International Negotiations, Conflict & Peace.
Niranjan Marjani is a Political Analyst and Researcher based in Vadodara, India. His areas of specialization are International Relations and Geopolitics.
Hello everyone, and welcome to Wikistrat Podcast. My name is Einat Elazari and I am the Director of Research and Analysis at Wikistrat. In this episode, I'm honored to speak with two experts on India’s domestic and foreign affairs, Poornima B and Niranjan Marjani.
Poornima is a doctoral candidate from India and part of the Wikistrat experts community. Her research interests include conflict analysis, India's foreign policy and national security, and Middle-East geopolitics. Niranjan is a political analyst based in Vadodara, India. His work focuses on India's foreign policy, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Indo-Pacific region.
Today, we're going to discuss the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 crisis in the country on different domestic, regional, and international affairs. Poornima, Niranjan, thanks so much for joining us today.
Thank you, Einat, for having us.
To what extent the COVID-19 pandemic is currently impacting India's focus on its relationship with Pakistan?
Thank you, Einat, for that question. If you ask me, there hasn't been any forward movement with respect to the bilateral ties between India and Pakistan since the onset of the pandemic.
However, if we see, whatever has happened in 2021 has been much better and positive than the events that happened in 2020. The relations were at a low, where we saw a lot of verbal duels and diplomatic spats. India wanted to trim its staff support in its embassy in Pakistan as well as cut down on the staff in Pakistan's embassy in India, accusing Pakistan of espionage and mistreatment of its diplomats.
And a few months before that, when the SAARC meeting was convened during the onset of the pandemic to come up with some sort of a regional strategy to fight the pandemic together, Pakistan pulled out the Kashmir issue and also the issue of the abrogation of article 370 that gave special rights to the former state of Jammu and Kashmir. I think 2020 also saw a lot of ceasefire violations, about 48% more than what happened in 2019. And, a lot of blame games happened in multilateral forums, such as in FAPF and UN.
When we look at 2021, the first small but significant development that happened was the resumption of the 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line Of Control and a few days after that, the United Arab Emirates even offered to mediate between India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue.
However, nothing much has happened on that front. And it is questionable if India would entertain a third party in the Kashmir issue deliberation, as traditionally we've seen that India hasn't been really encouraging of such third-party intervention. Apart from that, we have seen some positive exchanges between the leaders of both countries. Prime Minister Modi wrote to Pakistan's prime minister on Pakistan's national day.
And even in a number of instances, Prime Minister Imran Khan had all also expressed the mutual benefits of working India-Pakistan relations. However, Pakistan has continued to hold ties and hostage to the Jammu and Kashmir issue and, because of that condition, the ties haven't been able to move forward.
One other thing that has actually demonstrated how stagnant the relations were in the past two years is in the trade front, where Pakistan had, in April, decided to continue the trade ban on India, which it had initiated in the later months of 2019 following the abrogation of article 370. And this has, and will continue to, cost a lot for Pakistan because Pakistan is disproportionately reliant on trade with India, especially with respect to its import of sugar, cotton, or cotton derivatives. About 90% of India-Pakistan bilateral trade ties favor India and this will continue to affect Pakistan in the long run if this continues.
So answering your question, what has happened in the past two years since the onset of the pandemic, it has happened only because of events that have preceded the COVID-19 scenario, but not because of the COVID-19 crisis per se. The pandemic has influenced the trajectory the relations have taken in the last years. But however, one thing is clear. The pandemic has indicated that it is far from possible for the two states to work together, to fight a crisis that has been haunting the entire world and especially South Asia. Thank you.
Thank you, Poornima. It's very interesting. Niranjan, what is your take on this question?
Yeah. Thank you, Einat. And yes, like how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected India-Pakistan ties, then I would say, like Poornima said, it hasn't affected much, and India-Pakistan ties continued to remain where they were about two years back. Because, since 2019, the bilateral traditions have been really deteriorating. First, because of Pakistan's back terror attack at Pulwama, and later India abrogating article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. So, through the pandemic, through 2020, and even in the current year, the ties have continued to remain tense somewhat. A few developments have occurred, like the ceasefire agreement in February and some indications of a thaw in relations such as the possibility of resuming trade ties or some exchanges between the leaders of both countries. But, these have failed to materialize and these have not resulted in any progress.
So, yes. And at the time when most of the... What we say, international engagements are taking place with respect to the pandemic and with respect to cooperating with each other to face this challenge, India-Pakistan relations have been an exception and the Kashmir issue continues to be haunting these relations and Pakistan's instance on India restoring article 370 as a precondition to start the dialogue again. So, I don't think in this scenario even India will take any step forward to resume talks with Pakistan. And, it wouldn't matter if any country has preferred to mediate between India and Pakistan but, India is totally clear on this issue that this is a bilateral issue and it won't accept any third-party mediation in this context. So, I think COVID-19 has not really shifted India's focus from Pakistan and India's focus continues to remain with respect to security concerns that come from Pakistan. So, that is what I think about the status of India-Pakistan relations.
How is the expected US withdrawal from Afghanistan in September expected to impact India's relations with other countries, with its neighbors and countries beyond its neighbors?
US's withdrawal from Afghanistan will of course ensure heightened instability in Afghanistan, as well as costs potential trouble to the security of the South Asian region causing several spillover effects, including a rise in drug trafficking, arms smuggling, of course, cross-border terrorism and refugee outflows among several other security issues. And, this is something regional states like India, Iran, China, or even Pakistan would not want. Especially, in a scenario in a post-US Afghanistan where the Taliban advances, the threats might be even more credible. So, India will look to cooperate with regional states with or without the participation of Pakistan to bring about a stable and strong government in Afghanistan that can be enabled to contain the threats by itself. So, another problem is when the Taliban takes over Afghanistan. And if such a scenario happens, then eventually Pakistan might have to fall back to supporting the Taliban.
Right now, it's trying to balance between the US and the Taliban and it's walking the tightropes between the two parties. However, the Taliban would not prefer the US to even be pressing in his neighborhood, let alone Pakistan. So, Pakistan will be put to test when a powerful Taliban resurges in Afghanistan. And, India will definitely not prefer Pakistan giving its full support to the Taliban. And, because of this circumstance, it might warden India to engage and deliberate directly with the Taliban in order to protect its interests in the region.
And, I'm of the opinion that this will be the strategy for other regional states too, if they seek to safeguard their interests. The point here is that the Taliban will forcibly welcome rapprochement with India, for many reasons including the fact that it might give it some sort of credibility in the international community. And also it does not have to overwhelmingly rely on Pakistan for its international linkages. And, Pakistan will nevertheless oppose such engagement between India and the Taliban, but that this will indeed give India a better hand with respect to the issue in Afghanistan as well as the security of its interests in the region.
However, ultimately I think the peace process in Afghanistan will decide most of it. Whether the government in Kabul will continue to hold part but with a stronger hand this time or whether the Taliban will take over the state or whether a power-sharing agreement will finally come into place.
But, whichever way it is, India's relations with the regional parties will be re-evaluated and it will go through a lot of reorientation. So as to deal with any kind of threat, be it political, economic, or security threat that could confront India and the regional states with respect to Afghanistan. So far, India has remained very non-committal with respect to Afghan and the Taliban issue. But, I think the time has come for India to step up its efforts that can actually transcend into making a more stable and peaceful Afghanistan and South Asian region.
Thank you. Niranjan, what is your opinion on this issue?
Yes. With respect to Afghanistan, I think first we need to understand what is India's role and stakes in Afghanistan. See, India's role has mainly been in the reconstruction and development of infrastructure in Afghanistan like roads, power plants, dams, et cetera. And India has invested around $3 billion in Afghanistan in all these projects. And also India is not a direct participant in Afghanistan's security architecture, although it provides training to Afghan's armed forces. And, India continues to maintain that the peace process must be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled. Now, about Afghanistan and the Afghan government and Taliban, then India works only with the Afghan government. Whereas the other powers, those who are involved in the peace process, do engage with the Taliban. They have engaged with the Taliban all along during this peace process. The US, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, all these regional and extra-regional powers.
Compared to that, India's role has been limited in Afghanistan. Also, another point is that, although India-US relations have grown strong over the past three decades and they continue to grow strong, especially in a strategic area. But, when it comes to Afghanistan then, Pakistan is the preferred partner of the US in Afghanistan. And also, we have seen in recent times, China is also trying to gain a foothold in Afghanistan. It has, to some extent because, recently just around two or three days back China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan's foreign ministers had a meeting on the future of Afghanistan and how to cooperate. So, that is an important factor which India will have to deal with. China's increasing influence along with Pakistan. And, it is true that a stable Afghanistan is in the interest of its neighbors as well as the other powers.
And, India considers Afghanistan as a gateway to Central Asia by way of the route it is developing through in Iran. So, it remains to be seen how stable Afghanistan remains after the US withdraws. And, whether India can continue with its developmental projects and its proposed gateway to Central Asia. Another point is that, when we consider India-Pakistan as a bilateral country with bilateral relations, they are almost considered as enemies of each other.
But, in Afghanistan, Pakistan has an advantage over India because of its influence over the Taliban and its proximity to the Taliban. So, Afghanistan is one area where Pakistan can exert its influence, the kind that India is trying with other countries in the neighborhood, like say Bangladesh or the Maldives, where it is involved in countering China's influence. So, Afghanistan is one such country where Pakistan enjoys that advantage over India and where India's role is still very restricted. So, I think India will have to wait and see and have to continue working with the Afghan government and it's not really clear whether India would actually go ahead and engage with the Taliban. So far it hasn't. So, India's options as of now remain limited in Afghanistan. That is what I think.
What is your main takeaway from the COVID-19 crisis right now regarding India's global and regional allies and its relationship with them?
India's relations with the world and the regions specifically with respect to the pandemic can be viewed in two ways, actually. One is the vaccine diplomacy that India was engaged in for a period of time and the other, the kind of support it received from the international community after the onset of the second wave. So, while being exceedingly criticized for channeling vaccines to states in the neighborhood or to states outside of the region or even to the UN Peacekeeping Mission, vaccine diplomacy has been an integral part of India's global responsibility. And, while looking at the bigger picture of why India invested in vaccine diplomacy, one has to see that not all the ingredients or even the processing of the vaccines are done solely in India, right? And international cooperation in this regard was very necessary. So, that way, vaccine diplomacy helped India getting that international cooperation.
But however, the second wave demanded India to cut down on its global outreach and focus on vaccinating its people to look inside, because of the scary numbers that have been falling prey to the virus. So, this is when China had found the opportunity to offer vaccines to the other South Asian states, who themselves were very badly hit by the COVID-19 crisis. Nevertheless, as experts opined, it has to be kept in mind that such assurances from China will be accompanied by some or the other political interests in those states. And, also given that the cost of Chinese vaccines is almost double that of the Indian vaccines. But, as desperate times call, these states, these South Asian states, have been forced to look for alternatives and the Chinese option is familiar to them.
So, I doubt if this stand amounts to a vaccine diplomacy failure for India. And moreover, much international support was poured in when India was running short of oxygen. We had help from the UK, the US, Germany, and even countries like the United Arab Emirates among others, and the French President even went a step ahead to defend India's management of the crisis when criticisms over criticisms were piling up both domestically and internationally. But, there have also been some hiccups in world forums especially, like that in the World Trade Organization, with regards to waiving off the vaccine patents to India, which the US has agreed to but the European Union has been vehemently rejecting. And, also with regards to the World Health Organization, recognizing the Covaxin vaccine, which has been demonstrated to be effective, they have been in widespread use with respect to the frontline workers in India. But still, the WHO hasn't been recognizing.
But, all that said and done, there are some pertinent questions about India's international partnership, especially during these testing times. One is that, why hasn't the US offered to export its vaccines to India while supporting the waiver of patents? And this has been a query raised by the European Union also. And, why hasn't the WHO-approved Covaxin? In my opinion, while the international partners have shown support directly for India's battle against the COVID, I think it remains to be seen what powers like the US, the UK, and the European Union can do more with respect to the current vaccine situation in India and in general for India's fight against COVID.
Niranjan, what's your opinion on this topic?
I think the main takeaway has been right from the beginning the way India has responded to this pandemic. So, if we start from 2020, when at the beginning, then in consonance with India's foreign policy, India started by responding in the neighborhood first. Like, it convened the meeting of all the SAARC countries to formulate the strategy to deal with this challenge. And later on, even before the vaccines were manufactured, India has been providing medical assistance to a number of countries in the initial phase or the first wave of the COVID-19. And, after the development of a vaccine, India has been engaged in vaccine diplomacy since January. Parallel to vaccinating its own population, India started supplying vaccines either as a gift or on a commercial basis to a number of countries. So the point here is that, whether or not India should have done that, that's beyond the question.
But I think, what India has done is that, through vaccine diplomacy, India has covered a significant amount of significant region. And, it has supplied vaccines to African countries, South American countries, Central American countries. So, that outreach has been very large in this case. And because of that, India could receive help from a number of countries when the second wave hit badly from March onwards. That's one reason. And another thing is that, regarding global and regional allies, is that countries have been seeing India as an important ally, as an important strategic partner. That is the reason India has received so much help from the US, the UK, France, Australia, and the UAE. So, it speaks about India's stature at a global level as against the criticism that India is receiving as to the mismanagement. But, I don't think it's mismanagement. I think it was very much necessary.
And, the basic reason is that India has maintained, it's a global challenge and this needs to be dealt with collectively. Only collective efforts can help every country overcome this pandemic because it's not restricted to any one country or any one geographical location. It has spread all over the world. So, the response also has to be collective, and every country has to, all the countries have to cooperate with each other if we have to defeat the COVID-19. So, I think that is where India stands with respect to its response at a global level.
Do you expect the pandemic crisis to cause any major political and/or social changes in India?
That is definitely an interesting question. I would say that one can definitely expect major political and social changes in India in the coming years. Looking at the political front, the Central Government is in trouble, as it is accountable for the decisions made towards combating the crisis. And, those that have led to the second wave that has proven to be deadlier than the first wave. The death tolls are very high and certain policy mismanagement, including a weak health infrastructure, has caused unspeakable amounts of damage to the country's stature. These policy lapses coupled with already prevalent criticisms of the current government's moves both domestically and internationally, they have posed a mammoth challenge to its prospects of being re-elected in 2024. What will decide the chances is the years leading up to the 2024 National Assembly election. Of more concern is the 2022 election in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Uttar Pradesh alone contributes about 80 seats in the National Assembly and losing that would be like cutting a major limb of the BJP machinery. And, it is to be seen whether BJP can retain UP in 2022 and that along with proactive policies to pump the economy, which is currently going in negative rates and rampantly reducing unemployment rates and boosting the health infrastructure will actually help. Also, making vaccines accessible and affordable and some other groundbreaking social sector reforms are imperative for the current government to once again prove its credibility and to beat the amount of opposition that it has been facing over the months. And on the social side, yes. The nature of lockdown and social distancing has already cast its impact on society. Not only in India, but around the world. But in India, it seems to be deeper due to the number of deaths that have shattered families and because of the health infrastructure and because of the unemployment rates, and daily workers and migrant workers are the ones most impacted because of this ramification.
And, many of them have even moved to their rural areas. Apart from that, even education is something that has been badly hit by the COVID-19 crisis. And, the repercussions of it might not be seen in the scene immediately but, definitely in the near future. As not all students have access to, let's say the internet or a smartphone or a laptop, and hence they have dropped out of education, from pursuing their education. And one is unsure if these students will return back to school, even when the pandemic ends and when normalcy is reinstated. But even if it is, will it totally revert back to the pre-COVID-19 status? I think, no.
The thing is, online services and online education save a lot of resources that otherwise have to be invested in a physical move. And, this is indeed beneficial to the economy and society and has multiple advantages. Definitely agreed. But the problem is the gap that exists between such online services and the people who are supposed to be beneficiaries of these services. The gap is wide. And, until that gap is cemented, the society, in the post-COVID-19 scenario, could remain more divided and unequal. And, at least for the short- and the mid-term and this is my submission.
Niranjan, your opinion on this topic?
Yes. I'll start with social changes first and then come to the political. So, even social changes, I think specifically health infrastructure will have to change, I would say. Health infrastructure and especially rural health infrastructure, as it has been... Like, there is a lot of room for improvement at a rural level. Of course, even at the urban level, the health infrastructure needs improvement. It's all right. I mean, all over the world, we have seen – even in the most developed countries with the most advanced health systems – they were unable to take this pressure of a pandemic, and India does not have the best infrastructure. So, yes, there is scope for improvement in this area. And a second thing, of course, education is one area which has suffered a lot in this past two years. Along with, of course, the economy has suffered, but education suffered because it will have long-term consequences.
Like recently, the exams were canceled and, now, it should raise the question about the education system in India and whether some innovative thinking should go into revising or changing the education system in the future so that it is well-equipped to face such challenges. The reason is because India has around 60% of young population. And out of that, around 22% [of the] population is in the age group of 18 to 29. So, when we consider that statistics, then there is a large number of people who are in the age group of studying. So this will have a major impact. Like India talks about a demographic dividend, reaping benefits of a demographic dividend but, really the education system needs some changes, which will enable to tap the potential of the students so that they don't lose out on their educations.
Now, most of the education has been becoming online. The classes have been held online. And even some exams are held online. So, India will, in future, have to invest in this technology more. It's not that these factors were not present before. Only thing is that the pandemic has highlighted these shortcomings in the health sector and in the education sector. So, this is something the government should really concentrate on with immediate effect. I mean, not even in the future but, should start planning about making changes and improvements in the health and education sectors.
So, coming to the political part, now I will continue with this. These issues should form part of political discourse. Of course, they did. They were a part, but now I think, priority basis, they should form part of the political discourse across different political parties. And as regards whether this will cause any political change, then I'm not sure it will cause any major political change at the national level.
Yes, the government could have done better on many fronts, like managing the crisis and everything. About economy, about health. It could have done better. But, the reason I tell you why I'm not sure about any political change is that it's basically because the opposition is not united and the opposition is unable to present any single agenda or any focused agenda that could really challenge the present government. So, that is one reason. It's not because the government has done well on all the fronts, but it's because the opposition is weak and it is not able to challenge the government in a united manner. That's the reason why I don't think there will be any major political change. Of course, it won't be easy, like it has been in 2019. But, it remains to be seen what strategy the opposition parties come up with, in order to present themselves as a better alternative to the current government.
So, still, I think 2024 is a bit far. It's difficult to say anything now, based on the current situation. So, all I can say is that I don't see any major political change, at least in the next elections. That is what my opinion is.
I’d like to thank both of you, Poornima and Niranjan, for joining us in this episode. And, I'm looking forward to speaking with you again very soon.