Steps India must take for strong foreign relations post COVID-19 

Delhi Jun 10, 2020, 04.11 PM(IST) Written By: Priyanka Deo

Scott Morrison and PM Modi during a virtual meet Photograph:( Twitter )

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The COVID-19 pandemic brings the most uncertainty for foreign relations. This means that India must take time now to both build and redefine international relations.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently held India’s first virtual bilateral summit with Australian counterpart Scott Morrison. To watch the well-planned format of the conference was impressive, yet, at the same time, unnerving. Each leader spoke and then reacted. But it was certainly not what the public was used to viewing. As India prepares to enter a post-COVID-19 lockdown world, the summit gave people a clear indication of what the new ‘normal’ will be. Virtual conferences, summits and increased use of digital interaction is not going anywhere in the near future. And it will most certainly impact India’s foreign relations.  

The first PM Modi government redefined India’s foreign relations in his first term both in content and panache. By 2019, there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that India stood on the international stage as a nation that influenced international relations. To add to that, soft power features like yoga and Bollywood also elevated India’s status as in influencer versus being influenced.  

At the beginning of his second term, PM Modi wasted absolutely no time. Literally. Immediately after taking his oath as at the swearing-in ceremony, PM Modi met world leaders to discuss the path ahead. Race ahead to the first year anniversary of the Modi 2.0 government. India made successful outreaches to India’s strategic maritime partners including Sri Lanka and the Maldives. India also strengthened extremely strategic ties with the United States in trade and defence. In the recent bilateral summit, Australian PM Morrison said that he missed the infamous ‘Modi hug.’ It just goes to show how positively PM Modi has engaged global leaders.  

At present, there are trying circumstances for India’s foreign policy. An ongoing issue is bringing home stranded Indians via the Vande Bharat Mission. Article 370 met a lot of resistance from the Opposition. Misunderstandings about the Citizenship Amendment Bill broke into misinformed riots. The bill gives citizenship a dignified life for religiously persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Coming out of COVID-19, relations with China are already proving to be a challenge with recent skirmishes at the LAC.

Terrorism from Pakistan also continues. To add to that, India’s economy will take some time to bounce back.   

The COVID-19 pandemic brings the most uncertainty for foreign relations. As compared with other nations, India’s casualty rate remains low. However, the number of recent cases has shot up in the past few weeks. India may or may not see a peak in cases like the United States and Italy. What does this mean? Even as the lockdown is slowly phasing out in India, it is quite evident that coronavirus is not going away for a while. As citizens adjust to a new normal, Indian international relations also need to adjust to a new normal. 

Just a few weeks ago, PM Modi wrote a letter on LinkedIn to citizens. He encouraged young students and working professionals to find ways of rebuilding and reforming digitally. Like citizens digitizing at a micro-scale, PM Modi must also rebuild and reform government structure digitally. Going forward, international relations, including decision-making, will be based heavily on digital platforms and technological communication.  

The Centre should use this time to digitize individual Ministries and help individual bodies of the government technologically get up to speed. Furthermore, there are several nations that have handled the COVID-19 pandemic comparatively better than others. Examples include Germany and Uruguay. These countries’ economies will recover faster as compared to those struggling with the pandemic. This will result in their economic and international influence increasing internationally. Before India sees its spike in coronavirus cases, PM Modi should look at the practicality of implementing some of these countries’ methodologies for COVID-19. 

Economically, PM Modi has already reached out to national leaders on ways to diversify exports. The Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan stimulus package aims to make India self-reliant. India should take one more step and ramp up domestic manufacturing capability. PM Modi should also find ways to encourage more FDI. One way to do this is to provide incentives and encourage multi-national corporations to set base in India. Japan is allegedly incentivizing home-based companies to not put up institutions in China. India should encourage such companies to set up in India.   

In the status quo, the nation(s) which officially come(s) up with the vaccine for COVID-19 will enjoy substantial soft power. If President Trump stays in power, the USA will always act in India’s favour over China economically, for defence and for trade.  

It is unclear how overall global relations will be post-COVID-19. This means that India must take time now to both build and redefine international relations. As international interactions will be via digital means for the foreseeable future, costs are lower. to enhance relationships. Normally, relations are boosted through tours and foreign visits. As small as this amount of money is, it can be used very effectively by the Centre to digitize itself completely. The Government of India should simultaneously increase domestic manufacturing capability and with that diversify exports. Dependency on China will decrease for good as well if India can achieve this. As a result, India will easily be positioned as a post-pandemic global leader. Even better, a leader with strong, positive international relations that can only be strengthened in new ‘normal’ times. 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL) 

Priyanka Deo

Priyanka Deo holds masters' degrees from Harvard University, the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Southern California