In early February this year, there were two incidents that involved the people of India and the people of Barbados. The first was a tweet from Barbadian performer Rihanna. It went out to her hundred million followers, raising awareness about the supposedly undemocratic ways of the elected government of India. The second, much lesser known, was a thank you letter that Prime Minister Narendra Modi received from the Prime Minister of Barbados. That week, India had donated 100,000 free doses of vaccine to Barbados, enough to cover more than a third of that country’s population.
Since early January, India has exported doses of vaccine to over 70 countries around the world. A number of poorer nations, including several of our neighbours, have received these doses free of cost. In fact, India has already exported nearly 5.84 crore doses of vaccine, in contrast to the slightly over 3 crore doses used at home.
India is serving the world instead of lecturing. If this is Hindu nationalism, does the world need less of it or more?
The United States is the richest and most powerful nation on earth, run by a supposedly ‘liberal’ government. How many doses has it given away? That would be zero. Canada, their friendly next-door neighbour, is struggling to vaccinate its people. Yet, whatever Justin Trudeau thinks about our record on freedom of expression, he had to call India for help instead of his close friends in the US.
Right now, a bitter fight has broken out among rich western nations over who gets the vaccine first. The European Union is threatening to block vaccine exports to the UK. The EU may have a point. While the UK has been number one in receiving (mostly Pfizer) vaccines from the EU, very few doses of the UK-made AstraZeneca vaccine have flowed back to the EU. Meanwhile, the Australians had ordered (and already paid for) a million doses of vaccine from Europe. The Australians intended to give these vaccines away to their neighbour Papua New Guinea, which is one of the poorest countries in the world. The EU has blocked the export. There are no words strong enough to describe how mean-spirited this is.
Incidentally, the World Health Organization had set up a global fund intended to help poor countries with their vaccination programmes. Richer nations were supposed to contribute, while the less developed ones would draw from it. This is the international pool from which Pakistan will receive 45 million doses of vaccine made in India. While every nation is technically a member, the global pool was supposed to operate on the lines of an honour system. Or, so they thought. Instead, Canada and New Zealand dipped their hands into the pot and made away with it.
We have all seen their concern for human rights. What about their humanity? Not so much. Bear in mind that the administrations of Canada and New Zealand have numerous admirers around the world, including many vocal sections here in India.
On the other hand, India had appealed that in view of the truly unprecedented global situation, countries around the world should temporarily suspend intellectual property rights with regards to the vaccine. The West would not hear of it.
Recognize Indian Exceptionalism
It is time for Indians everywhere to recognize that there is something fundamentally good about our country. We may be ranked very poorly on fictitious indices set by Freedom House or some institute based in Sweden, but when it comes to helping human beings, we are ranked number one. This is a product of our Indian values. We should not hesitate to announce this loudly to the whole world.
This is a form of Indian exceptionalism, if you will. Why are the rich nations of the West fighting with each other over vaccine? These are all democratic countries. Their governments are simply catering to popular sentiments. Our sentiments are different because we Indians just think differently. The values enshrined in our civilization are—to wish good health and prosperity on everyone, not just ourselves, or ‘Sarve bhavantu sukhina, Sarve santu niraamaya.’ These values are not just different. They are better.
This is not to spite anyone nor insult any other nation or culture. But Indians everywhere, including the diaspora, have a duty to recognize the once-in-a-century opportunity to project India’s soft power across the world. The West exerts its control over the world in a number of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. They sponsor a number of centers for international studies, think tanks, NGOs and various other lobby groups, to push their agenda. Their objective is to always cast themselves as the good guys, always the saviors of the world.
The consequences of such soft power are real. It gives them the moral authority to do with the world whatever they deem fit. They get to choose which countries are “good” and which ones are “evil.” And, among the countries they consider “evil”, they also get to choose which ones should be bombed and which ones should be left alone, or even courted as allies. Their ends always justify the means.
The same extends to the domestic policy of each country. For instance, Britain recently offered citizenship to the people of Hong Kong, because they are persecuted by China. This was seen as generous and justified. In contrast, our new law giving citizenship to persecuted religious minorities from Pakistan was vilified as dark and sinister. The real difference is that British values are inherently regarded as good, while Indian values are regarded as suspect. The various reports from western think tanks are intended to achieve this exact purpose: keeping us on notice.
Art of pushing the narrative
In international relations, it is not always so simplistic to classify someone as friend or enemy. It is about having chips to bargain with. You don’t just set traps for your enemies. You also bargain hard with your friends. Because, in times of need, even the US won’t be there to help Canada. And vice-versa.
As a matter of fact, we might actually be lagging behind in pushing our narrative. The BBC already made the first move, alleging that the poor in India are being left out of the vaccination drive. Simultaneously, reports to the same effect appeared in a handful of Indian opinion portals. While the doubts might be legitimate, the driving force behind them is suspect. When it comes to the vaccination drive, we Indians have a lot to be proud of. On the first day of this week, India administered 30 lakh vaccine jabs. This is about the same number of jabs that Canada has administered in the last three months. Yes, percentages matter, but scale matters too. When it comes to per capita GDP, China is not even among the top 50 nations in the world. But the overall size of its economy makes it so powerful.
Most people would notice that during the pandemic, the global media always reported cases and deaths from India in absolute numbers. But the same media counted Covid-19 tests and now vaccinations only as a percentage of the population. In other words, bad news about India is always in absolute numbers. Because our population is so large, those numbers are always big. When reporting the good news, they switch to percentages to make it seem small.
The final point is that it is almost entirely up to individuals or our media organizations to tell this remarkable story of India vaccinating its own and helping the whole world. For obvious reasons, the government of India cannot make official statements on export negotiations, for instance, between the European Union and the United Kingdom. It is for us to be aware of these developments and compare and contrast our attitude with theirs. And, for once, let us not be self-effacing Indians. We are doing a lot of good in the world right now. We deserve to be recognized and applauded for this. We must claim this high honour and secure it for ourselves. Because nobody ever gives anything for free.