A common trait amongst right-wing populist leaders is their obsession with image – theirs and their country’s. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no different. Since he took charge in 2014, his administration has gone out of the way to ensure that the man at the top is seen as a larger-than-life figure, even a messiah of sorts – whether at home or abroad.

Today, it is this implacable commitment of the national leadership to image-building that has fallen back on India like a mean curse. As the country reels under an unprecedented crisis brought by a vicious second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are slowly but surely coming to terms with how damaging a single person’s monarchical preoccupation with his image can be for the common people.

Amidst all the minute statistical details about the pandemic and the policy response to it, one thing has become clear as a cloudless sky – the Central government let its guard down long before the storm had passed, just to boost Modi’s image at home and India’s image in the world.

Nothing else shines the light on this more than India’s massive vaccine export programme, and to a lesser degree, its decision to export an unusually high volume of oxygen in recent months.

Vigorous vaccine exports

On January 20, the Modi government launched Vaccine Maitri – an ambitious programme to export the two Indian-made shots – Covishield and Covaxin – to the world. On that exact date, India counted 14,112 fresh cases of Covid-19. Although much lower than the first wave’s daily peak of 93,198 cases, registered on 16 September 2020, it was still a fairly high one-day count.

Since then, according to data published by the Ministry of External Affairs, nearly 6.6 crore doses of Made-in-India vaccines have reached a total of 95 foreign entities under the banner of the Vaccine Maitri initiative. Out of these, the Modi government has donated nearly 1.06 crore doses as free-of-charge grants to various low-income countries in the global south. Others have been shipped as part of commercial deals and the United Nation’s COVAX facility and GAVI alliance.

In fact, so aggressive was India’s export programme that according to the government’s own submission before the Parliament made last month, more shots were sent out of the country than administered to Indians as of mid-March. Notably, by this time, the caseload had started to climb back up again, with India registering more than 23,000 cases on March 15.

Despite the fact that cases had started rising just three weeks after New Delhi flagged off Vaccine Maitri, the Modi government did practically nothing to stop the exports or even ring any alarm bells. Instead, it continued to blow the horn on India’s rising global standing and reputation. Not just that, the government continued to confidently assert that all is well and there is simply nothing to fret about.

For instance, during his speech to the Rajya Sabha on March 17, the Minister of External Affairs, S Jaishankar, said that “the supply of vaccines abroad is based on the assessment of adequate availability at home” and that the process was “continuously monitored and takes into account the requirements of our domestic vaccination programme as it unfolds in different phases”.

Except, what happened next completely belies these claims and shows an export programme in a complete tailspin. As March drew down and April came, the caseload started to climb at a menacing speed. Between Jaishankar’s March 17 speech and April 1, the daily case count jumped from 27,006 to a staggering 65,211. Suddenly, New Delhi seemed to have realised its untimely haste and resorted to damage control.

Exporter to importer

The Vaccine Maitri despatch register published by the external affairs ministry shows that shipments slowed down to a trickle in the first two weeks of April. India exported a meagre 17.68 lakh doses in the first fortnight of this month, a nearly 170% drop from the 2.19 crore doses that it had sent out in the same period in March. In fact, the register showed no exports after April 16 at the time of writing this article. But, the Modi government continues to deny any official export ban.

Meanwhile, the government reportedly also asked Serum Institute of India – the Pune-based pharmaceutical giant that makes Covishield – to stop exporting its vaccine. The company is now facing serious production constraints of its own, with its CEO, Adar Poonawalla, blaming the United States for banning exports of raw materials needed to produce the vaccines.

Although the Joe Biden administration has now agreed to permit these exports after initially refusing to do so, Serum Institute of India’s production capacity remains overstretched. The company has pushed its plans to ramp up monthly production from May to the end of June, and so has Bharat BioTech that manufactures Covaxin.

These would lead to serious shortages when the countrywide inoculation drive opens up for all adults on May 1 and the number of eligible recipients doubles. To deal with this impending calamity, the Modi government is now fast-tracking the import of foreign-made vaccines, such as Pfizer, which it had earlier rejected.

Besides the vaccine export initiative, the Modi government also did something that any prudent government would ideally avoid during a deadly respiratory pandemic – export oxygen in large amounts, that too in quantities much higher than in the pre-pandemic period.

According to official data, New Delhi exported nearly 9,294 metric tonnes of oxygen between April 2020 and January 2021, which was the peak period of the first wave. This was more than double the amount exported last year (4,502 metric tonnes). Today, India is facing an unprecedented oxygen emergency, and at least 69 critical patients have died across the country due to issues linked to the shortage of life-giving gas. Suddenly, from an exporter of liquid oxygen, India has become a massive importer of oxygen plants, tankers and concentrators.

So why was the Modi government vigorously promoting exports of Indian vaccines and oxygen when the pandemic was still raging at home and just less than 3% of Indians were inoculated?

Amid a second surge of Covid-19, India is facing an unprecedented oxygen emergency. Photo credit: Sajjad Hussain / AFP

Pushing back China

If the government is to be taken at face value, there was nothing more to Vaccine Maitri than international solidarity and goodwill. According to Jaishankar, the initiative was all about India’s generosity and internationalism that are “so characteristic of our culture”.

“Our reputation as the pharmacy of the world has been reinforced,” Jainshankar told the Parliament. “The stressed and vulnerable nations of the world can see that there is at least one major nation that believes in making vaccines accessible and affordable to others in dire need.”

But as international relations scholar, Zhiqun Zhu, put it in a recent interview about vaccine diplomacy, “it is disingenuous to claim that a country conducts diplomacy altruistically”.

It is in Jaishankar’s statements that one can locate the Modi government’s vested, and arguably dangerous, obsession with India’s “image” before the world. This, in many ways, is a direct extrapolation of Modi’s perennial fixation with his own image at home.

The point here is not as much that modern nation-states do not (or shouldn’t) seek to cultivate their global image. Rather, it is that during times of extraordinary crises, the short-term costs of pursuing a globalist strategy to secure medium-to-long term foreign policy goals could be high. This is where a government is expected to weigh the scales with wisdom, composure and caution, which the Modi government failed to.

Tied to the broad objective of image-building, there was a specific reason why New Delhi initiated an ambitious vaccine export strategy without wasting time – to outpace China’s own vaccine diplomacy under its so-called Health Silk Road initiative and restore Indian goodwill in its own “backyards”.

Over the last decade, Beijing has extended its direct sphere of influence across the global south through its grand Belt and Road Initiative. It has especially deepened its footprint in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhoods through large-scale loans and development projects. Thus, India saw the pandemic as a solid opportunity to push back against Beijing’s blitzkrieg and regain some of the lost ground, especially in South Asia - a goal that became even more pressing after last year’s Galwan clash.

No wonder, amongst the cluster of countries that have received Indian shots as free-of-charge grants, five South Asian neighbours and three others in the extended neighbourhood sit at the top, with a total of 70 lakh doses reaching them. Notably, even amongst the importers of Indian liquid Oxygen from April 2020-January 2021, Bangladesh received the lion’s share (95%). On the side, India also planned to attach the initiative to the Quad project in the Indo-Pacific to build geopolitical heft in Southeast Asia.

In short, the Modi government chose to invest in complex big power politics while the deadly virus still loomed large over India.

Cost of diplomacy

To be clear, it is admirable that India has been helping low-income countries in the global south inoculate their populations. But, the Modi government has sold the whole thing to Indians and the world with much duplicity and disingenuity.

It has rallied against “vaccine nationalism”, instead rooting for internationalism, but at the same time, dedicatedly campaigned for the indigenously-developed Covaxin over variants from other countries – even before the former completed third-stage efficacy trials. What was that but not “vaccine nationalism”?

In fact, several experts have flagged this overreliance on the Indian vaccine and delay in approving others as short-sighted. And they were not wrong. Today, with rapidly rising cases, the government is scrambling to authorise non-Indian shots for emergency use.

So, while our foreign minister might believe that critics are “short-sighted” and “really irresponsible”, that will not take away from the fact that the Modi government underestimated the Covid-19 pandemic, drowned itself in a hubris of image-making and leapt to secure abstract foreign policy objectives before the storm had passed.

Today, as the country faces an unfathomable medical emergency, the kind that it has not seen since independence, we must ask: what should the famed “pharmacy of the world” do when it is not even able to find space to cremate its dead?

Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Delhi, and a former visiting fellow to the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin.