UN Failed in Its COVID Response, but What About PM Modi’s Record?

Manoj Joshi
·7-min read

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the UN General Assembly’s annual session was fairly anodyne. He spoke of achievements, laid out complaints and put out promises linked to India’s non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council next year. And, he made a pitch for India to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

To this end, he invoked size, demography, culture, and ancient heritage. As well as a series of claims of achievement under the rubric of “Reform-Perform-Transform” that he said India was operating under.

The PM was right in blaming the UN for the several wars and terrorist attacks that the world has suffered. After all, the organisation was set up to prevent them and its Security Council was given unprecedented powers to deal with them. But, for all its flaws, the UN is not easy to replace.

Most people believe that with four of the permanent members supporting India’s bid, it is only China that is the problem. They may not be aware that even the US, our alleged principal backer, does not want India to get the kind of permanent seat that it and China have.

As Nikki Haley put it  in 2017, when she was the US ambassador to the UN, the key to get India into the UN “would have to be not to touch the veto.” In other words, India would have to be satisfied with a second class status, even in a reformed UN.

Actually, most observers believe, that given the present geopolitical situation, reform in the UN is not a likely proposition. In other words, Modi is whistling in the dark.

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UN Failed at COVID Response, But India No Different

The failures of the UN system have been manifest for some time and the lack of a coherent global response to the COVID-19 crisis has brought this out sharply, as pointed out by Modi. But whether India joining the high table would make a difference is another matter.

Beyond the natural right of a large country, Modi insisted that India needed to be taken seriously because of “the transformational changes” happening in the country. Actually, what the world is likely to insist on is not a “transformational” country, but a transformed one.

India gained a lot of support, especially from Russia and the western countries in the UNSC in the wake of its nuclear tests and economic surge in the early 2000s. But, in recent years, that promise has waned.

Not only is the Indian economy sliding, but the liberal democratic foundations of the Indian Republic are withering away, aided by the political forces that brought Modi to power.

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Where Are Modi’s'Transformational Changes'?

As it is, some of the transformational changes enumerated by Modi are strictly in the government’s own mind. People do read and have eyes that can see. They would be  immediately have been struck by the credit the PM is seeking on account of getting “600 million people free from open defecation in just 4-5 years”.

Pointers are there from a recent report of the C&AG. Central Public Sector Enterprises claimed they had constructed 1.4 lakh toilets in government schools in recent years, but 40 percent of those surveyed were found to be non-existent, partially constructed or unused.

So, we need to be cautious before accepting the claims Modi made before the UN, that India is providing Digital Access to its citizens, piped drinking water to 150 million households, connecting 600,000 villages with broadband fibre optics. Or that in the past “2-3 years, more than 500 million people have been provided access to free health care services”. There is a huge gap between claim and performance of the government.

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A lot of data was fed to the UN, but a lot of information relating to actual implementation and actions of the government is being denied to the public and even to Parliament. Indeed, in terms of opacity, the Modi government has exceeded itself in the recent truncated session of Parliament.

It was, of course, one thing to kick the UN on account of its lack of effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But what about Modi’s record? The seemingly transforming country finds itself unable to cope with the challenge of COVID-19.

Vaccine Promise a Pure Hype

Nothing can match the incompetence and callousness of the government’s performance in locking down the country and forcing 10 million people to trudge hundreds of kilometers to their homes in the height of summer.

Given the fact that the full dimensions of the pandemic have yet to manifest, Modi’s promise at the UN on the vaccine front is pure hype: “I want to give another assurance to the global community. India’s vaccine production and vaccine delivery capability will work to take the whole humanity out of this crisis.”

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This came a day when Adar Poonawala, CEO of India’s major vaccine producer, Serum Institute of India, wondered whether the Union government would have Rs 80,000 crore to purchase and distribute the vaccine within this country over the next year.

It takes no genius to realise that unless money is provided upfront, and now, there will be no vaccine, even for India next year.

Is Modi Govt Fighting COVID Crisis With Expertise or Artifice?

One wonders whether the Modi government is aware of the real dimensions of the crisis. Having coerced the media to deliver propaganda, playing down the scale of the crisis, the government is now being taken in by its own artifice.

Some of the requirements of the vaccines are complex, some needing multiple doses, others requiring a deep cold-chain, not just the ordinary one, to ensure the effectiveness of the vaccine. The governance capacity that the Modi government has displayed does not make for too much optimism on this score.

India may not have caught up with the fact that its image in the liberal international world is now fading. Repeated “masterstrokes” like demonetisation, GST roll out, splitting and down-grading Jammu & Kashmir, have not just failed to yield results, but caused great misery. This has not gone unnoticed around the world, even if the Indian media has consciously underplayed it.

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A recent article in Time Magazine said that Modi has governed India in a manner that has ignored India’s fabled religious tolerance and diversity. “The crucible of the pandemic became a pretense for stifling dissent. And the world’s most vibrant democracy fell deeper into shadow.”

Strong words repeated by long-time friends of India like Ashley Tellis, who said that many liberal powers aided India’s ascent and its rise was “widely welcomed.” But “a recent wave of policies widely perceived to be illiberal has eroded this confidence.” If India moves away from its liberal character, the West’s eagerness to partner India will be diluted.

Modi’s advisers may have convinced him of India’s standing and heft. But the reality is that we are simply not important to either the US, the EU, Russia or China in terms of trade and commerce. Even in the area of security, India’s domestic compulsions – many self-created – are such that they preclude India from playing a significant extra-regional role.

Perhaps one day, the UN will be reformed and India will get the seat in its high councils as a great power. But that day will not come till the time India gets its act together in economic and political terms.

No amount of manipulating the narrative at home and massaging public opinion in the West is likely to work. The world will look for heft, and not hype, before making that decision.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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