Covid-19 Outbreak: A New Imperative for Refashioning India’s Approach in South Asia

Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag & Arpan Bhattacharya
April 07, 2020


Can we perceive any distinct change in India’s way of looking at its immediate South Asian neighborhood in the wake of the Novel Corona virus outbreak? Perhaps it might be too early to jump on the optimistic bandwagon. The article looks at the strategic considerations for New Delhi in this regard.

It is true that India’s neighborhood connect is neither new nor very popular. In fact, it is marked by a competitive game in which India is accused of being hegemonic and is therefore resisted rather than offered cordial cooperation. 

However, Prime Minister Modi has been working to secure a more robust position for India in the neighborhood. As Trembley and Kapur observed, Modi’s October 2014 visit to Nepal sent out a gesture that India was ready to give a ‘virtual blank cheque’ to the Himalayan nation. Similarly, New Delhi and Dhaka, in a historical diplomatic decision-making, reached an agreement for the land swap to put an end to the statelessness of many people living precarious lives in undecided enclaves since 1947. The psychological effect of these moves has been immense. 

However, Covid-19 pandemic is an altogether different experience. As Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra has observed, the crisis has sounded ‘an alarm bell for all policymakers across the globe’. The situation is far graver than it can be handled by one or some powers. Facing the ordeal, the government of India decided to go for an unprecedented lockdown across the country, sealing borders and insulating itself. For many, India stepped up with her commitment to regional wellbeing and provided emergency relief measures to regional countries out of the realization that South Asian cooperation was an urgent task to act upon. It is definitely distinct from earlier instances when India had taken upon itself the onus of critical rescue missions in response to SOS calls like Operation Maitri in April 2015 after a massive earthquake in Nepal. The two situations are incomparable, given the degree of the pervasive impact of the current pandemic with rising mortality creating universal panic, acute psychological trauma, and suffering. 

It was in the 1990s when India’s diplomatic stance and engagement vis-à-vis South Asia registered a significant change, especially with regards to the articulation of its growing ambition abroad and institutional overhaul within. This was the function of India’s consistent record of upward economic growth and endeavor to enhance her military muscle through defense modernization, joint military drills, etc.

India, under Prime Minister Modi, has shown an altruistic posture in the form of benevolent leadership and generous concern for the SAARC countries in the wake of the present pandemic by creating a SAARC emergency fund. This is expected to herald Modi’s Neighbourhood 3.0. Modi’s Neighbourhood policy had acquired a hawkish dimension following India’s Balakot air strike in 2019 against the terrorist groups operating in Pakistan. The recent crisis has provided opportunity for India to tone down the aspect of growing militarization of India’s foreign policy. Now, in the face of the corona virus pandemic, and the deeper worry of a worldwide recession looming large, India’s strategic response is palpably undergoing a perceptible change requiring her to plunge into action for crisis management both at home and abroad in a speedy and inclusive manner. 

It is to be noted that what makes this crisis even more daunting is the vacuum of leadership in many nations, particularly the US, whose rise and role as the leader of the evolving international order remain severely restricted due to the pandemic. India, on its part, has moved with alacrity. If New Delhi can refashion her role in catering to the demand of human security and global pandemic, she would be able to regain her distinctiveness that appears eclipsed in its cooperation with major powers. This presents an imperative for India to re-engage with the South Asian neighbors with a new cooperative package and warm diplomatic gesture altogether. 

On the contrary, China’s meteoric rise and inroads into the South Asian strategic space to fill the vacuum since the 1990s, followed up by increasing hobnobbing with Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka more recently have raised India’s concerns. Nevertheless, even by the end of the 1990s, it was primarily a question of India’s capacity to balance China’s expanding influence. But we started seeing a change-over from the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century when India woke up from its earlier limited and hesitant mode to a much pronounced pursuit of reassertion in the geo-economic and geo-political space of South Asia as well as Southeast Asia. Needless to say that this shift in the role was made possible by India’s impressive economic performance, and importantly by her growing desire to stand up to China, which was not possible due to various constraints. However, it is time for India to recalibrate her posture not only as a “regional peacekeeper” but also as an aid giver in order to enthuse her immediate neighbors. India’s relations with neighbors like Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka need to be seen in this perspective. 

India should restrain, however, from the belief that these changes have a sweeping impact on its neighborhood policy. In the context of the ongoing epidemic, India’s initial response was one of studied caution, but quickly India shed off her hesitations and accepted the neighbors as its prime responsibility as the largest regional nation to take care of their health concerns. No doubt, it would help mend her image that suffered severely due to the negative publicity in the international media about its new citizenship amendment act. However, much of the international criticism could still be neutralized if India was able to effectively help regional countries. The present crisis presents an opportunity for India in many ways. China, on its part, has taken a series of measures. It has been flaunting its system, providing material assistance to other countries, and even trying to shape the discourse as if the western media is out to malign it. China has been working on weaving together nationalist sentiment with aid diplomacy while trying to cover up its own domestic front, which is still in a messy condition.

There are at least two other important issues related to India’s regional initiative in fighting the ongoing epidemic. First, the present lockdown measure is reactive and therefore could give an impression of not being an integrated and comprehensive approach. However, the initiative itself has to be lauded. Modi’s idea of an emergency fund at the regional level provides at least a sense of collective approach for broader threat perception that we in South Asia should work out collectively, and the region should review their combined preparation for crises regularly. The essence of the idea was in Modi’s affirmation that “Neighbours in South Asia can control the spread of the novel corona virus by coming together, not growing apart”.

Secondly, a lot of loopholes could have been attributed to India’s rather late awakening to the epidemic, further aggravating and shortage of masks, test kits, and other medical equipment. Nevertheless, PM’s innovative ‘Janta Curfew’, quickly followed by the decision to cancel rail and flight along with different states locking down and local administration’s vigilant role particularly to spread the awareness and to convince the rank and file to stay at home and to work from home has initiated a transformative discourse about cooperation in South Asia that we have successfully been able to unleash, influencing even our neighborhood. 

India’s approach towards its neighbors is now concentrated on using public diplomacy 2.0 to reach out to the neighborhood audience in order to develop awareness, promote mental health, and overall to create psychological preparation, which is very crucial in case of fighting with such grave threats to human security. In these grave times, an empathetic engagement of people is essential, and this has been personally led by the Prime Minister through video messages and live telecasts. The economic package for the migrant workers is also welcome. This is important because in case of any extension of duration of lockdown the poor and those belonging to the unorganized sector will be hit hard and therefore an empathetic engagement with public is important to maintain social resolve and cohesion. However, we have to wait and watch to see whether this humanitarian doze in our public health continues in our policies because in future similar massive perils might also result from climate change or natural disasters. Then, neither the markets nor any stockpile of arms would be of any help. Protection in the face of catastrophic dislocation might only be possible if India’s concerns can lead to a lasting bonhomie at the regional level to inject a new trust.

*** Dr. Gouri Sankar Nag is Professor & Head of Department of Political Science at Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, West Bengal ***

*** Arpan Bhattacharya is Assistant Professor & Head of Department of Political Science at Ramananda College, Bishnupur, West Bengal ***