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India’s Covid-19 Crisis: Assessing the Political Impact

Three questions to Christophe Jaffrelot

India’s Covid-19 Crisis: Assessing the Political Impact
 Christophe Jaffrelot
Senior Fellow - India, Democracy and Populism

Since the end of April an Indian variant of Covid-19, called B.1.617.2, has been shaking the country’s health system with more than 350,000 daily cases on average. But the consequences of India’s hard-hitting second wave of coronavirus may not stop with the sanitary repercussions. It could also affect India’s domestic and international stability. We ask three questions to Christophe Jaffrelot, Senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, about the stakes of this critical moment. 

India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, is at the center of the global vaccine diplomacy game. How will the second wave of Covid-19 affect India’s international position in 2021? 

In less than four months, the situation has completely changed. In January 2021, at the annual Davos meeting, Narendra Modi said: "While two India-made vaccines have already been introduced to the world, many more vaccines will be made available from India". India became a key player of the UN-backed COVAX programme, which is supposed to provide 2 billion vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries. In January 2021, Narendra Modi announced that India would export its two vaccines free of cost to Mongolia, Oman, Myanmar, Philippines, Bahrain, Maldives, Mauritius, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Seychelles, as "a goodwill gesture". 

In four months, in the framework of the "Vaccine Maitri" (Vaccine Friendship) initiative, India exported 64.4 million doses of vaccines, including 35.7 million on a commercial basis, 18.2 million through the COVAX program and 10.4 million as donations. At the beginning of April, only 120 million people had been vaccinated in India. 

When the second wave gained momentum, not only did India have to stop its exports, but it also had to accept aid from foreign countries. It became clear that India was not really "the world’s pharmacy", as shown by its dependence on other countries - including the US - for supplies of raw materials and other components of vaccines.

It became clear that India was not really "the world’s pharmacy", as shown by its dependence on other countries - including the US.

This reversal of roles has sorely affected the image of India, with many countries realizing that India’s new policy would impact their vaccination plans. India’s ban on vaccine exports is particularly affecting the COVAX program. For instance, it will slow down the vaccination campaign in a number of African countries, which partly relied on doses produced by the Serum Institute of India.

Can the present crisis damage India-US relations? Certainly, New Delhi expects the Biden administration to lift restrictions on exports of the supplies that Indian vaccine makers need, and that had been put in place by Donald Trump under the Defense Production Act. But so far, this issue has not generated noticeable tension in the relationship. On the contrary, Joe Biden’s interest in the Indo-Pacific is greatly appreciated in India. 

In spite of this context, European leaders and Narendra Modi virtually met on May 8, during the 16th EU-India Leaders Summit. What would be your take on the outcome of this summit?

The summit was supposed to be a spectacular one as, according to the original plans, Narendra Modi was to meet the 27 Heads of State and Government of the EU in Porto. But what we ended up with is a virtual and remarkably low-key meeting - at least, a meeting that has been under-reported in the media, in Europe as well as in India. Still, important topics were discussed, including the resumption of "negotiations for a balanced, ambitious, comprehensive and mutually beneficial free trade agreement" (in the pipeline for many years) and on "a stand-alone investment protection agreement". Perhaps more importantly, the EU and India have initiated a "connectivity partnership" that covers domains ranging from transport infrastructure to digitalization, with references to the Indo-Pacific. This partnership "recognized the key role of the private sector and the importance of enabling private financing to achieve our goals". The emphasis on the digital challenges that the world is facing is well in tune with the greater priority that is apparently granted to cooperation in the domain of high tech, including artificial intelligence.

However, the final joint statement is disconcerting, because it reaffirms "the importance of achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement", when India is investing in coal again, and emphasizes "India’s efforts to produce and distribute Covid-19 vaccines to over 90 countries through its ‘Vaccine Maitri’", when India’s ban on vaccine exports may last for months.

The risk of unpopularity is such that neither Narendra Modi, nor his right-hand man, Amit Shah, are speaking out.

This final communiqué is also interesting, because of its long paragraph on the need for a "more democratic world", not only in the Indo-Pacific (where the imperative of freedom of navigation and overflight, as well as rule of law is emphasized), but in terms of the "promotion of human rights" too. This formula is made in reference to the resumption of the EU-India Human Rights Dialogue and in the context of the strongly worded resolution that the European Parliament had passed a few days before the Summit, in which a majority of the MEPs had "encourage[d] India, as the world’s largest democracy, to demonstrate its commitment to respecting and protecting the freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, to end attacks against - and to release arbitrarily detained - human rights defenders and journalists, including in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, to repeal laws that may be used to silence dissent, and to ensure accountability for human rights violations".

Is the Covid-19 crisis weakening Narendra Modi’s party? 

Till recently, the Modi government had not been affected by the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, in spite of the fact that the initial lockdown, decided in four hours during the first wave, had badly hit migrant workers - millions of whom had had to go back to their village by themselves. The second wave is different. Not only is the number of casualties much higher, but among them are people from the middle class, whom the media cannot ignore and who form the core of Modi’s support base. These citizens are very well aware of the state’s mismanagement. The risk of unpopularity is such that neither Narendra Modi, nor his right-hand man, Amit Shah, are speaking out: they have disappeared from the public scene, where they had occupied such a central place for years.

Will this change of atmosphere translate into votes? Possibly, if the number of casualties continues to increase for weeks and months - especially if the media do not only give the official figures, but the more realistic evaluations of the scientists. 

The recent state elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam suggest that the present crisis may be a turning point. Not only could the BJP not conquer any new state, but the kind of identity politics the party used to capitalize upon has lost some of its shine, with the exception of Assam, to some extent. First, two outgoing Chief Ministers, Mamata Bannerjee in West Bengal (of the Trinamool Congress) and Pinarayi Vijayan (of the Communist Party of India - Marxist) have been reelected, partly because of their social welfare programs and - for the latter - for the way in which Kerala successfully managed the pandemic thanks to a robust public health policy. Their victory suggests that governance efficiency and results may prevail over Hindu nationalist mottos and that issue-based election campaigns may be back, at the expense of identity politics. Secondly, and correlatively, the voters who have made possible the victory of Mamata Bannerjee, Pinarayi Vijayan and M.K. Stalin in Tamil Nadu (where his party, the DMK, has dislodged a partner of the BJP from power) mostly belonged to the plebs of India’s society. To some extent, class is back in Indian politics.Gender is also playing a new role, as women’s vote contributed to the defeat of BJP and its allies in some states, including West Bengal. 

In the 2010s, Hindu nationalism had gained momentum, while the Indian middle class and the dominant castes regrouped behind the BJP in reaction to the rise of the lower castes. This cycle may be over. But this trend will find expression in national politics only if the charisma of Modi is seriously eroded and if the opposition gathers together around a leader... 


Copyright: Diptendu DUTTA / AFP

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