Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2021-02-23 09:13:37 Published on Feb 23, 2021
The pandemic gives India a unique space to mainstream science and technology in its domestic and foreign policies
Adding heft to diplomacy with some help from science

India’s ongoing ‘Vaccine Maitri’ campaign, which is aimed at provisioning COVID-19 vaccines to countries both near to and away from its immediate neighborhood, is one of the most important recent initiatives to leverage its science and technological advantages for the furtherance of its foreign policy objectives. While the appreciation of leaders such as President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and the reluctant outreach of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for securing vaccines manufactured in India have gained much attention, New Delhi’s efforts to address this health emergency were met with even more vocal appreciation by leaders from its partners from the Global South such as the Dominican Republic and Barbados.

Setting the template

India’s global priorities in science and technology were clearly articulated by its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during his address to the country’s Science Congress on January 21, 1959. Nehru was aware of both the constructive and destructive power of science and made India’s intention of seeking international scientific advances for the country’s development and rise clear with added emphasis on averseness to inter-state rivalries. This template would set the tone for India’s international science and technology engagement for much of the 20th century, and met with mixed results as more powerful states such as the United States sought to curb its ambitions in critical spheres such as its nuclear and space programmes.

Assertion of interests

Despite limitations, India still managed to assist its partners from the Global South in key areas of science and technology such as health across Asia and Africa. The country’s national confidence would also rise during the final decade of the last century as economic dynamism led to a more pro-active assertion of its interests. New Delhi established the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India in November 1999. And by the early years of the 21st century, it sought to reduce its dependence on foreign countries to then emerge as a net provider of development assistance in the international system.

The 21st century international system was more conducive to the country’s science and technology designs in spheres such as nuclear and space technology due to a thaw in ties between India and the United States given the rise of an aggressive China and other consequential challenges to the international system.

India would also sign strategic partnerships bearing substantial science and technology components with advanced economies such as the United Kingdom, Japan, Israel, Germany, the European Union, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, South Korea and Australia even as it strengthened its traditional partnerships with countries such as France and Russia.

India’s ambitions would also become evident from its critical policy frameworks. Both the country’s Science and Technology Policy 2003 and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2013 clearly related international science and technology cooperation with national interest. More recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been categorical in placing science and technology at the forefront of the country’s diplomatic engagement.

India’s state instruments of diplomacy would also begin to show a more visible alignment to international science and technology cooperation. India currently fields four Development Partnership Administrations under its Ministry of External Affairs — consequential given that President Ram Nath Kovind, in Cuba in June 2018, declared that the country had “placed science and technology at the center of its development cooperation strategy”.

The Ministry of External Affairs too has seen a restructuring with a Cyber Diplomacy Division, an E-Governance & Information Technology Division and a New Emerging & Strategic Technologies Division to manage science and technology issues in the nation’s diplomatic matrix.

The COVID-19 response

India’s science and technology prowess would be tested internationally by 2019 through an unprecedented global disruption originating from China in the shape of the COVID-19 pandemic. New Delhi was swift to address the global challenge by initially sending medicines such as hydroxychloroquine and paracetamol to over 150 countries, welcomed by its partners across the world. India’s pharmaceutical firms such as the Serum Institute of India competently partnered with the U.K.’s Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine project while others such as Bharat Biotech gave rise to indigenous vaccines in the shape of Covaxin. India’s response came at a time where the developed world was pre-occupied in trying to address its own domestic issues and China’s health diplomacy — much like its other development assistance — came with prohibitive costs.

As scientists developed vaccines to fortify human beings against an aggressive COVID-19 virus, it was India, an established leader in vaccine manufacturing, that rose to the challenge of global provision. Beyond idealist invocations, India’s COVID-19 response also came closely aligned with its Neighbourhood First, Act East, Indo-Pacific and LookWest policies.

Areas for review

As India, through its Aatmanirbhar Bharat initiative, attempts to secure maximum self-reliance through capacity building and creating an environment where science and technology can not only answer its own national needs and cross-border interests but also global challenges, there are issues that must be addressed. India’s financial apportionment to science and technology related research must rise to enable the country’s own rise — as must participation of its states, universities and private sector in research and development efforts.

The time is also right for India’s young scientists and technologists to be made more aware of the country’s foreign policy objectives, and to also enable all stakeholders in the policy establishment to learn more about science and technology to bridge the intellectual divide. The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has presented the country a unique space to mainstream science and technology in its domestic and foreign policies. It is now up to India’s decision-makers to conclusively convert this crisis into an opportunity.

This commentary originally appeared in The Hindu.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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