The delay in response to India’s request for Covid vaccine raw material was seen as the result of lobbying by drug companies over Covid-19 vaccine production.
Just over two years after Narendra Modi was inaugurated as the Prime Minister of India, he was invited to address the joint session of the US Congress. It was a remarkable moment for a man who, just a few months before taking the reins in New Delhi in his historic victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, was denied a US visa. The Leftist-Liberal groups, mainly comprising Indian-American academics and activists, had lobbied hard with the US government to keep Modi off US soil.
Speaking to the members of the Congress in that joint session on 8 June 2016, PM Modi declared that the Indo-US relationships have now “overcome the hesitations of history”. Almost five years later, that relationship, as far as the widespread public perception goes, was at its lowest since the Pokharan-2 days when India had conducted its second nuclear tests in May of 1998.
Cases of coronavirus infections had been rising steadily in some pockets of India, namely Kerala, Maharashtra, and around Delhi, since early 2021, prompting a warning of a possible second wave. Delhi, in particular, has been in the centre of all this as tens of thousands of farmers from neighbouring states and many from as far as UK, Canada, and the US, had been gathering and protesting against the Modi government’s farm bills. But as the size of BJP’s election rallies grew larger and larger in West Bengal, so did the number of Covid cases in Mumbai and Delhi. And one day, all of a sudden, it all blew up into an enormous catastrophe before anyone had a chance to blink.
India’s grossly underdeveloped healthcare structure could not handle this surge and collapsed. Social media feeds were flooded with the request for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, and doses of Remdesivir—a widely used antibiotic in the treatment of coronavirus. And then came the media tsunami—the pictures of burning funeral pyres taken by Reuters’ Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Danish Siddiqui. It went viral quickly, no pun intended. Overnight, India transformed itself from being the “diabetes capital of the world” to be the “coronavirus capital of the world”.
Messages of sympathy and offers of help started to pour in. From Australia to Pakistan, China to Russia, and France to the United Kingdom, world leaders took to social media to make their statements of support. People also waited eagerly for messages of support from the White House, or at least from their own Masala Dosa loving Chitthi, the second in command in the US. But none were coming. There was complete silence for the next few days from the American political establishment. No one from the Biden administration, which boasts one of the largest contingents of “South Asians”, issued even one statement of sympathy. Surprisingly but understandably, even the high-profile Indian-American CEOs stayed out of it until the political leadership made their public statement, and so did most Democrats worth her/his salt. Then the realization hit some of us—South Asia isn’t India!
The Indian diaspora was getting bombarded with ridicules for being ignored by a Democrat-led government of which Indians are one of the most loyal supporters and generous contributors to the Party’s coffers. Shocked by being cold shoulders by the Biden administration, the Indian diaspora undertook a massive campaign to reach out to their elected representatives. Organizations like Sewa International USA launched an enormous drive to mobilize resources (masks, oxygen supply, etc.) and raised close to $5 million within days.
As the media indulged in an orgy of unhinged Hinduphobic depiction of the death toll and made light of the most sacred Hindu rituals of antim sanskār and shrāddh, none of the high-profile celebrities, including US VP’s loudmouth niece Meena Harris could spare a tweet of support. We did not hear much from the gang of the tool-kit activists either. A couple of months ago, they had created a cyber-storm in light of the ongoing “farmers’ protest”.
However, one of the first ones to speak was the outspoken progressive Democrat from California’s 17th congressional district, Rep. Ro Khanna. A grandson of a former Indian National Congress leader Rep. Khanna has faced the ire of the Hindu-Americans numerous times for his perceived support of the anti-India and anti-Hindu elements in the US. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois’s 8th congressional district too soon followed suit.
When the members of the Biden administration finally spoke, what people noticed missing from tweets was the mention of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In its first 100 days in office, the Biden administration has gained the reputation of not treating its political and ideological adversaries kindly. After assuming office on 20 January, it took Biden nearly 18 days to make the customary call to the leader of the world’s largest democracy. The Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu had to wait an additional week or so to receive that call. Both Modi and Netanyahu were ignored for their close ties with former President Donald Trump. President Biden also did not want to be seen endorsing Netanyahu ahead of Israel’s 23 March elections.
The delay in response to India’s request for Covid vaccine raw material and medical equipment was seen as the result of intense lobbying by the drug companies over Covid-19 vaccine production. Along with other countries, India had advanced a proposal to the World Trade Organization to issue exemptions from patent protection for Covid-19 related treatment. Drug companies asked the Biden administration to punish countries looking to ramp up the production of vaccines.
The delay also gave rumours about an effort afoot to undercut PM Modi or even an effort for a backdoor regime change in India. With the American military-industrial complex’s known appetite for such misadventures, this wasn’t something totally out of the blue. Any development in this conspiracy theory, however, was quickly shot down by several India watchers.
At the end of the day, India got what it wanted, and then some. There is a massive effort by the Biden administration underway to deliver the required help to India. However, there is a lingering suspicion that delay on the part of the US was purely political.
Avatans Kumar writes frequently on the topics of Indic Knowledge Tradition, language, culture, and current affairs. Avatans is a JNU and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus. He tweets @avatans