External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has his task cut out during his ongoing visit to the United States amid an escalation of tensions with the American technology giants back home on issues of privacy and freedom of speech. While a key part of his mission is to explore means to secure Covid-19 vaccines from American pharma majors, India’s bitter standoff with Twitter and Facebook-owned WhatsApp has cast a shadow over the trip, making his task much more difficult. The diplomat-turned-politician needs to marshal his persuasive skills to do the tightrope walking; defending India’s position on privacy and freedom of speech on one hand and pushing the case for vaccine supplies from American companies without any strings attached. Having lost its initial edge in vaccine diplomacy, India is virtually caught in a desperate situation now and needs to procure foreign vaccines to accelerate the inoculation coverage. The United States is in a position to help India in the fight against the pandemic, be it in the area of emergency medicines and equipment, or strengthening critical supply chains and collaboration for the production of vaccines and therapeutics. There is a huge opportunity to strengthen the bilateral health partnership, given the convergence of trade, business and strategic interests between the two countries over the past several years. It has already delivered Covid-19 relief worth over $500 million to India. The timing of Jaishankar’s visit, the first by a top Indian dignitary after the change of guard in America, assumes significance as it comes in the midst of India grappling with a severe vaccine shortage.
Apart from issues of multilateralism and trade, cooperation on climate change and strategic aspects of Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), a four-member grouping comprising the United States, Japan, Australia and India, what is of immediate concern is strengthening the bilateral collaborations on vaccines and ramping up health infrastructure. India wants a smooth supply of raw materials for the Covishield vaccine and also wants to talk to Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer regarding supplies. Vaccine markets represent a complex set of global supply chains. Jaishankar has an unenviable task on hand negotiating the entire gamut of issues involved in making of the vaccines and supplies of the raw materials available to India. India, at present, is manufacturing Covishield, Covaxin and Sputnik. These need raw materials from abroad, and mainly American suppliers are involved. The complexities of the global network of vaccines explain how Jaishankar’s visit comes at a crucial junction when the Indian economy is still struggling to recover from the devastating impact of the pandemic. The collaboration between two of the world’s most important democracies will go a long way in overcoming the challenge posed by the pandemic.