It is easy to understate the power of India, still barely middle income per capita, but putting the full weight of its more than $2 trillion economy towards sending vaccines to around 70 countries around the world.
This is unprecedented, and far more ambitious than any assistance provided by countries in the West, far wealthier than India, and is significantly more than anything China has sent out. China-made vaccines have at last count been sent to around 28 countries.
When asked about the state of Indian democracy at a recent event, foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar referred to India’s success in sending vaccines around the world as a demonstration of the country’s global egalitarian commitment, and asked, rhetorically, what many more economically powerful countries in the West have delivered in comparison.
At the same event, asked about India’s response to China, Jaishankar mentioned that if a gun is pointed at India, the country would not hesitate to point one back.
Only a couple of years ago, the commentariat were abuzz with speculation that India would never “go through” with the Quad. That apprehensions of its relations worsening with China would forever hold India back. That India would, based on its old idea of “non-alliance”, ever create an alliance, no matter how sotto voce, with the U.S.
One of the key examples of this was held up in the fact that India seemed to be dithering on inviting Australia to participate in the Malabar naval exercise. But that bridge was crossed last year against the backdrop of continued tensions between India and China on their disputed Himalayan border. It was a tipping point in India’s commitment to the Quad, and this year the heads of government of the four countries, the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia, not only had their first summit but also issued a joint statement—earlier meetings had seen each side put out a separate press release.
These two incidents, taken with the recent statements of Jaishankar, signal ever more clearly that India has a new worldview determined not by the baggage of past ideology but ground-level realities of the present.
In a world still plagued by the Covid-19 pandemic, India has chosen to project its role as a supplier of goods and services most needed around the world, like vaccines, rather than a recipient. By shedding its old ambiguities about joining the Quad, it is signalling that it is ready for a reimagination in where it sits in the world. One caveat: in the latter, it is still adding the nuance that it feels is necessary, for instance, it ensured that the joint statement referred to a ‘free, open and inclusive’ Indo-Pacific, rather than just the ‘free and open’ terminology preferred by the U.S. The ‘inclusive’ is seen as a window left open for countries like India which have a shared border with China, and which, therefore, seek more nuanced balancing.
All of this is—as some of us have been pointing out—seeks to redefine what kind of democracy, what kind of rising power India is going to be in the future. This contestation is often described in absolutist terms—either India accept Western norms or not, etc.
But what India is trying to craft is far more nuanced than a simple embrace or rejection of what the West (especially America and the European Union) describe as a “rules-based order”. India is projecting that its size and importance as the world’s sixth- or fifth-largest economy (this alters from time to time due to economic upheaval) gives it a unique position.
The Indo-Pacific cannot be secured without India. Nor can the future of global healthcare be thought of without the country which produces most of the generic drugs in the world. The rules of a deep-digitised world cannot be conceptualised without taking into consideration 1.3 billion people whose lives are actively turning to digital-first. Militarily the only major country facing off China soldier-to-soldier today is India.
A global alliance of democracies, high on the agenda of the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, begets the question: who is going to set the parameters for such a coalition? Barring the basic qualification of free and fair elections, is there any criterion to be considered? And after what happened at the end of the Donald Trump presidency, including the attack on the White House, who decides which are “perfect/imperfect” democracies?
Through its participation in the Quad and its vaccine diplomacy, India is seeking an establishment of democratic credentials, and an affirmation of its rising power status on its own terms. By placing the question of servicing the large parts of the world with vaccines, India is putting global healthcare at the forefront of the filters for democracy. By unequivocally joining the Quad, but at the same time, tweaking its language to suit its priorities, it is signalling that its participation also means the admission of its pivotal needs.
For a long time in its independent history, India has been considered in the West (especially) using the filters of its economic needs, or regional usability, or even its post-colonial positioning (as part of the ‘Third World’, anti-colonial) club. The weight of such filters often erases the fact that it was Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who described India and the U.S. as ‘natural allies’ as early as September 2000—a terminology almost unthinkable at that time.
India now is suggesting that those are filters of the past, and it now has ascertained a new set of criteria to define its rise.
Views are personal. The author is a multiple award-winning author of nine books. He is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.