Assessing India’s ‘(HCQ)’ Politics: A Step Ahead in ‘Soft Power’ Diplomacy?

Sampurna Goswami
April 19, 2020


The spread of the novel Corona virus has coerced the nation-states to shun the ideas of globalism, unhindered flows, de-territorialism, and has brought back the ideas of isolation, self-centeredness, compartmentalization, and social distancing. However, the Corona virus could not hinge on the calculations and competitions related to power transition and global leadership. Diplomacy is taking its own course, and nation-states are constantly trying to outdo each other in their techniques and strategies to fight the pandemic. However, the unraveling of a global consensus regarding the applicability of ‘Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ)’ to the Covid’19 patients, have given rise to a new politics. India, the largest producer, and exporter of the HCQ drug, is now under a global pressure to lift the restriction it has posed to meet the domestic requirements.

On April 4, 2020, US President Donald Trump’s statement to the international press and media brought forth two conspicuous facets. Firstly, President Trump stated that he had requested Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lift the restrictions imposed on HCQ. Later he stated that India shares good relations with the US and has always taken advantage of trade concessions, therefore if India does not lift the ban, the US would be surprised and might take retaliatory actions. So, on the one hand, Trump talked about a ‘request’ that was made on the personal ground, and on the other hand, he warned India of retaliatory actions. President Trump’s equivocal behavior is not surprising when assessed through the prism of personality quotient, but what is more vexing is India’s stake and position as a ‘Responsible Power’ at a time when the world is facing a humanitarian crisis. In response to this, however, India has lifted the restrictions imposed on the export of the drug, and according to the Ministry of External Affairs, India will be supplying the drug to countries that are dependent on India’s capabilities and also to nations woefully affected by the Coronavirus pandemic.

Although India’s stand to lift the ban was followed by swells of criticism, but diplomacy is an art. Every decision has a short term and a long term consequence. Indeed, India could have taken a more staunch action by maintaining the restriction or could have raised its voice against the usage of term ‘retaliation’, but that would only satisfy India’s short term ambition of projecting herself as a ‘Big Power’. However, it is paramount to understand that the world views India to be a ‘Responsible Power’ rather than a ‘Big Power’. India’s supply of HCQ to her neighbors would actually bring her closer to the South Asian nation-states as well as countries beyond her neighborhood. India’s strategic backyard has never been conducive to her ambitions. Moreover, China’s ‘Carrot and Stick’ diplomacy with South Asian nations have been directed towards exacting compliance from these weaker nation-states and create a region that would inevitably limit India’s influence. Nevertheless, a small gesture of helping these weaker countries at the time of crisis can actually create grounds for successful diplomacy and help in shifting the South Asian ‘Balance of Power’ in favor of India in the long run.

India-US relation has been witnessing growth over the last three decades. India views America to be one of her strategic partners, and the relationship centers around profitable trade relations, interest to counter China’s influence in Asia, and strengthening India’s position within the Indo-pacific, Indian Ocean Region as well as its standing in the global community. India can, in no way, let America move out of her diplomatic radar and policy motives at a time when India is aiming to strengthen her position and sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Furthermore, India’s strategic partnership with the US bolsters India’s ‘Counter China’ policy. Thus, India’s decision to export HCQ to the US will, in reality, boost Indo-US relations in the near future and help India to make her presence palpable in the Indo-Pacific.

Moreover, India’s foreign policy has been concentrating on strengthening her position at the Multilateral and Regional Forums more than ever before because India wants to buttress her ‘Quest for Global Power’ status, and BRICS is one such institution. It will not be redundant to state that India’s position in BRICS is determined largely by how India deals with the other participants like Brazil, Russia, and South Africa in a forum where she coexists with her strategic rival, China. Lifting the restriction on HCQ export and supplying the drug to Brazil also carries long term strategic benefits for India.

In sum, the HCQ diplomacy will benefit India on various fronts but most significantly in boosting India’s ‘Soft Power’. India’s stand to lift the ban in response to ‘retaliation’ from the US might seem to be a diplomatic failure, but it is not. Nevertheless, critics find enough ground as India lifted the partial ban on HCQ export under pressure. Time is ripe for India to lead a pharma-diplomacy in this case. HCQ is a boon for India, and India’s foreign policy stands on the pillars of humanitarianism. India’s decision to lift the export ban shall not only bring strategic long term returns but will also fortify India’s position in the international community.

*** The author is an Assistant Professor at Department of Political Science of Sukanta College, University of Calcutta and is a Ph.D. Scholar at Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University ***