people getting the Covid vaccine in India[Source: Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India Facebook page]

[This is an excerpt from an article in a special edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

India’s leadership in coordinating the South Asian response to COVID-19 drew praise from some world leaders. In an interview with an Indian news agency in May 2020, the Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland said, ‘people are looking to India for how Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government and people of India have responded to the pandemic, controlled it and minimised it because it could have been so much worse’. She also said she was ‘very impressed’ with the way Prime Minister Modi pulled together the SAARC nations, including several Commonwealth members, to coordinate a response to the pandemic.

Non-aligned movement

When Prime Minister Modi chaired the SAARC leaders’ virtual meeting on March 15, his cabinet colleague and trusted ally, Home Minister Amit Shah tweeted: ‘with today’s SAARC conference [the] world has witnessed the dawn of a new kind of diplomacy, which sets an example for the world to follow’. Shah also proclaimed that ‘under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership India will play a defining role towards solving global issues’. India under Modi has indeed tried to demonstrate to the world that it punches above its economic weight and that it is able and willing to be a responsible stakeholder in tackling global challenges.

Although India had of late given the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), of which it is a co-founder, the cold shoulder – Modi skipped the 2016 and 2019 in-person NAM Summits, sending in his place the Vice President of India – yet, on 4 May 2020, the prime minister chose to attend the virtual summit of the NAM Contact Group to discuss the Movement’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He told the summit, ‘in the post-COVID world, we need a new template of globalization, based on fairness, equality, and humanity’. ‘Despite our own needs, we have ensured medical supplies to over 123 partner countries, including 59 members of NAM’.

In his address to the NAM virtual summit, Modi also said: ‘We should develop a platform for all NAM countries, to pool our experiences, best practices, crisis-management protocols, research, and resources’. He also did not miss the opportunity to take a dig at India’s neighbour, Pakistan, when he said: ‘Even as the world fights COVID-19, some people are busy spreading some other deadly viruses such as terrorism, fake news and doctored videos to divide communities and countries’.

While Indian foreign policy has clearly moved away from the founding principles of the non-aligned movement as India develops closer security ties with the United States, Japan and Australia, India remains a NAM member. The Indian government is actively using all international platforms available to it to promote its image as a responsible stakeholder and using every possible opportunity to contrast itself with its neighbours, China and Pakistan. China’s economy is roughly five times the size of India’s and it provides more development assistance and makes more investments in developing countries, most of which are members of NAM, under its Belt and Road Initiative. But India prides itself on its softer, more friendly approach to other developing nations, which it contrasts with China’s ‘debt trap’ diplomacy. If China is the ‘factory of the world’, Prime Minister Modi markets India as the ‘pharmacy to the world’.


The Indian prime minister was quick to pick up the phone and call other world leaders, offering India’s help in combating the pandemic and appealing for greater global cooperation. Encouraged by his success in convening a virtual meeting of South Asian leaders to discuss their collective response to the pandemic, on 17 March Modi called the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the current G-20 chair, and suggested a virtual meeting of the world’s 20 largest economies.

An ‘extraordinary session’ of the G-20 leaders was held on 26 March via video conference, at which Modi stressed the need to prioritise humanitarian interests in dealing with the pandemic. Earlier, in his telephone conversations with a number of world leaders, Modi had discussed his views on how the grouping could help coordinate its efforts in dealing with the pandemic. Among the leaders he spoke with were the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, with whom he discussed the need for a G-20 meeting to plan a response to the virus. Separately, the Saudi government had said in a statement that,

  • the G20 will act, alongside international organisations, in any way deemed necessary to alleviate the impact of the pandemic. G20 leaders will put forward a coordinated set of policies to protect people and safeguard the global economy.

The G-20 meeting resolved to ‘fully support and commit to further strengthen the WHO’s mandate in coordinating the international fight against the pandemic’ and to ‘close the financing gap’ in the WHO Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan. The G-20 countries also said that they were collectively injecting US$5 trillion into the global economy as part of fiscal stimulus, economic measures and guarantee schemes.

When Modi proposed the idea of a G-20 summit to discuss a common response to the emerging pandemic, there were only 200,000 cases of COVID-19 infection worldwide and 8,200 people had died of the disease, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. Apparently, what drove Modi to call world leaders was the fear of a Global Financial Crisis-type of economic collapse in the wake of the pandemic. This would have dire consequences for the world economy, and it would also derail India’s goal of becoming a US$5 trillion economy by 2025.

Critics have dubbed the Indian prime minister’s enthusiastic early efforts to simultaneously combat the pandemic at home and position India as a leader in shaping global responses as ‘Sisyphean’. India has indeed struggled to contain the spread of the virus at home and its diplomatic efforts to craft a global response to the pandemic have dissipated as it focuses its energies on managing the disease and its economic fallout. One reason for the loss of momentum is the fact that, faced with the pandemic, every country is trying to look after its own interests. India’s scarce diplomatic and financial resources are currently stretched to the limit as it deals with a raging pandemic, slowing economy and an uncertain international environment, not to mention the heightened tensions along its border with China. Barely weeks after offering support and assistance to China in its fight against COVID-19, India had to contend with aggressive military manoeuvres by China along their disputed border in Ladakh in the Himalayas, leading to violent clashes and dozens of fatalities for the first time in decades. Though it is possible that the Chinese actions were designed to take advantage of the difficult situation confronting India in the face of the pandemic, it may be too early to determine the exact cause. Whatever the Chinese motivations, these dangerous manoeuvres have adversely affected Indian public opinion towards China, which had already soured following the alleged attempts by the Chinese authorities to conceal the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019.

Pradeep Taneja is with the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne , Melbourne, Australia and Azad Singh is with the Bali School of Politics and International Relations and the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.