The Modi government on Monday decided to lift a ban on the export of the drug hydroxychloroquine. The restrictions had been in place for all of two days.
This wasn’t the only surprise. New Delhi’s abrupt change of mind came hours after United States President Donald Trump declared that India could face retaliation if it failed to remove the ban. Trump explained to the press that he had been working to secure hydroxychloroquine stocks for the United States. “I spoke to him [Modi] Sunday morning and I said we appreciate it that you are allowing our supply to come out,” the US president said. “If he doesn’t allow it to come out, that would be okay, but of course, there may be retaliation, why wouldn’t there be?”
India produces nearly half of the global supply of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that is one of the experimental means being used to fight the coronavirus. The Indian Council of Medical Research has, with caveats, authorised physicians to use the drug as a potential preventive measure for Covid-19. This has pushed up the demand for the drug.
India’s ministry of external affairs sought to claim that the media was creating “unnecessary controversy” by linking New Delhi’s decision to reverse the export ban with Trump’s remarks. The ministry also sought to reassure India’s that the country’s own requirements had been considered before acceding to the United States’ demand.
This did not convince many advocacy groups within India. “If they remove restrictions on export now, we could face a shortage internally,” Malini Aisola of the All India Drug Action Network told the Hindu.
While India’s drug stocks are a source of concern, also troubling is what this ugly episode means for Indian diplomacy.
The Modi government has invested an immense amount of time in cultivating Donald Trump. In September 2019, Trump and Modi held a joint rally in the United States, where the Bharatiya Janata Party leader endorsed Trump in the run up to the 2020 US polls – the first time a serving Indian prime minister has supported a candidate in a foreign election.
Similar energy was put into Trump’s visit to India in February – even though the visit yielded nothing in concrete terms for the two countries.
After all this, for the US president to publicly threaten India to reverse its export ban on a possible Covid-19 drug – and for India to accede to the threat immediately – indicates that the Modi government’s immense efforts to woo Trump have not had the effect they should have. As foreign affairs commentator Stanley Johny remarked, if India had assessed its own stocks and then moved to help the United States on humanitarian grounds, it would have been welcome. “But when you do it after Trump’s threat, it reflects badly on you,” he wrote. “A strategic partner is not a client state.”