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Will Covid-19 see India rise as a new responsible global stakeholder ?

The current state of international affairs is unique in its complete vulnerability to one single external factor: the Covid-19 pandemic. In times like these, countries are trying to put their best diplomatic foot forward to ensure that they can recover from the economic damage and come out of this as an internationally recognized responsible state. Much like in “normal” times, there is a covert struggle for hegemony at play. According to Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the two pre-requisites for emerging as an international stakeholder are (1) the capability to be a norm setter and (2) the capacity to share global burden.

India has been deploying its diplomatic efforts strategically along both lines rather well and increasingly beyond the “responsible norm setter” image, towards emerging as a global burden sharing power. From working towards helping countries with medical supplies, to aligning with the United States in checking Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, to attempting to resuscitate the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Indian government is covering all bases. This article discusses the prospects of the Indian rise as a global burden sharing partner in the current tumultuous situation.

India as an emerging burden sharing partner

In “Norms, Identity, and Their Limits: A Theoretical Reprise”, Paul Kowert and Jeffrey Legro defined norms as ways “to encourage behavior congenial to the interests of the hegemon that created them”. In a multi-polar world, this would translate into a system whereby several stakeholders regulate standards together. However, there have always been divided opinions with respect to norms being universal. As much as there has always been a tendency to pick-and-choose when to play along this burden sharing game.

India over the years has been recognized as a responsible norm abider but has been seen on occasions as swaying away from issues that challenge its sovereignty. In 2007, a study by Harvard’s Belfer Center concluded that, as an international stakeholder, India proved to be an invaluable norm setter but that there was scope for improving its burden sharing capabilities. It suggested that India had actively started participating in international organizations which worked towards global norm setting but that it lagged behind in terms of burden sharing in contributing to non-proliferation, energy and the environment, as well as regional and international security.

The Covid-19 crisis has changed the meaning of priorities in terms of burden sharing. The Developed World is looking towards Asia for support in terms of medical supplies as well as stimulus for economic recovery. As the US and much of Europe are busy blaming China for its initial cover up of the outbreak and its sub-standard medical supplies, India continues to maintain a staunch non-partisan stand. But while doing that, the Indian government continues to send medical supplies and drugs to Bhutan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Mauritius and a few African countries. India also agreed to export hydroxychloroquine sulfate (HCQ), to help treat Covid-19 symptoms, to more than 50 countries on a commercial basis, in addition to 1.32 million tablets of paracetamol that were gifted.

The Indian decision to roll back on an initial ban on exports of HCQ drugs has been much appreciated by the international community.

On a different note, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in the NAM virtual summit held on May 4th, 2020, after his missing out on two successive summits, going as far as referring to NAM as the “World’s moral voice”. His decision signals a strong inclination towards resuscitating the movement…

The World is witnessing a fundamental change in Great Power politics. American leadership is being questioned and China is suffering from an international backlash. Notwithstanding the “economic giant” tag, China does not stand as the preferred leader for a majority of the Developing World and even for “middle powers”. The international community desires a “normative leader”. Of course, the definition has always been wobbly…

Chances of an Indian leapfrog

In these uncertain times, India presents certain advantages.

It is a democracy, a label that has always legitimized responsible nations in the eyes of the international community. As such, it receives increased support and approval from the US, particularly since Donald Trump replaced Obama’s failed “pivot to Asia” with his own “pivot to Indo-Pacific”. Moreover, its geographical position next to Pakistan has always made India “look good” relative to its troubled neighbor.

India has a global standing in regional as well as international organizations. It has the privilege of being both a natural and historical leader of the “least developed countries” and as well as an important ally for the most developed ones.

Its capacity to supply medical aid in different ways and forms to various countries in its region also helps consolidate its influence in the Indo-Pacific.

Finally, the strained relations with Malaysia and Iran could also improve owing to the Indian display of benevolence throughout this pandemic. 

Burden sharing – the best way to rise up the ladder

India is a nuclear power with an impeccable non-proliferation record. It has stayed away from unnecessary territorial interventions (except in Sri Lanka in late 1980s) and hence is perceived as a “safe state”. It enjoys a virtuous image and great influence amongst the developing as well as developed nations.

As India tackles the pandemic at home, some observations can be made.

  • India is being careful to live up to its image as a “responsible stakeholder” while making pragmatic decisions in fighting the spread of the virus.
  • It has continued to collaborate with the US while also diversifying its influence leverage through regional initiatives like NAM and the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

At the latest NAM meeting, Prime Minister Modi stated that the World is in need of a new globalization template based on fairness, equality and humanity. The onus on India in that process is as plain as a pikestaff…

Picture credits: The Daily Star

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