New Delhi, Jan 3: The year 2021 can possibly be called the most disruptive and devastating year in recent memory for the whole world. It had started on a muted positive note with vaccines becoming available to confront the oncein-a-century pandemic and with cautious optimism that the world would be able to overcome the health, economic and social challenges thrown up by the coronavirus.
India had to handle its own share of trials during the year. At the end of 2021, India can look back with satisfaction upon the year just ended because it has been able to successfully overcome most of the difficulties that came its way starting with the second wave of Covid-19 and the steep decline of -7.3% in GDP during the last fiscal year. Other major challenges that had to be boldly confronted included the forcible wresting of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the continued standoff with China on India’s northern borders.
Some of the major highlights of the Indian foreign policy during 2021 which give promise of a brighter future are given below:
Vaccine Maitri: India started its vaccination drive on January 16 last year. Within 4 days it also started supplying the India-made Covishield vaccines to our neighbours and strategic partners, beginning with Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh and Nepal to countries much farther away like Brazil, Caribbean and Pacific Island States and many more. Within a short time, India had supplied more than 66 million vaccines to 90 countries plus. Most of these supplies to developing countries were gratis. A few commercial supplies were also made. All these consignments were welcomed with deep appreciation and gratitude by the recipient countries. India had to temporarily curtail these supplies when the second wave of the virus struck the country in April, 2021. But they were resumed in October as soon as the situation and supplies normalised. This initiative significantly enhanced the influence, image and clout of the country particularly when compared with attempts to weaponise such supplies by our northern neighbour. The fact that India has been able to develop, manufacture and use Covaxin and several other vaccines has also significantly enhanced India’s status as a rising scientific and technological power.
Relations with the US: President Joe Biden assumed power in the US in January, 2021. There were some misgivings whether the dynamism and momentum of the India-US strategic partnership could be maintained because both Biden and his Vice-Presidential running mate, Kamala Harris, had, during the campaign made some critical remarks on the domestic issues of India. It was also mentioned that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had identified himself too closely with President Donald Trump, which would prove to be an obstacle in the smooth upward evolution of bilateral ties.
All such apprehensions were found to be misplaced. The critics and commentators of PM Modi’s policies did not realise that he was proactively engaging with Trump in his capacity as the President of the US, the most valuable strategic partner of India, and not in the latter’s individual capacity. Biden hit the ground running and during the year worked with PM Modi to chart the course of bilateral ties to higher levels. PM Modi had a highly successful visit to the US both Washington DC and New York in September 2021, which provided a strong impetus to New Delhi-Washington ties.
The first in-person Summit of the Quad countries was also held during this visit which has helped to put this Grouping on a firmer and surer footing as well as given it a push towards institutionalization. Biden has accorded appropriate importance to the Quad as also to building alliances with friendly, like-minded democratic countries. He has also taken a leaf out of Trump’s book by standing firm against the aggressive moves by China and not adopting a soft approach towards it as many had feared. All this bodes well for stronger and deeper partnership between India and the US in 2022 and beyond.
The Afghanistan Conundrum: India was the only major country that had refrained from engaging with the Taliban over the last many years, even when it became clear after the signing of the Doha Accord in February 2020, between the US and the Taliban that the US forces would depart very soon from that violence wracked country. India was at the receiving end of continuous criticism, both from domestic as well as international analysts, that New Delhi had frittered away its political and economic clout and capital in Afghanistan by adopting an ostrich like attitude, by refusing to see the writing on the wall about the imminent assumption of power by the Taliban in Kabul.
However soon after the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15, 2021, it became clear to the apologists and supporters of the Taliban that they had been led up a garden path by Pakistan and that the Taliban was not in any substantially different from the Taliban that ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
PM Modi received a call from President Putin on August 24 suggesting that the two countries coordinate their positions and establish a ”private bilateral channel” to bring peace and security to Afghanistan. This led to the visit by the Russia’s Secretary, National Security Council, General Nikolai Patrushev to India on September 8. Then, in another two months Patruchev was back, this time to participate in the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue in which the Heads of the National Security Councils of Iran and the five Central Asian Republics also took part.
The countries participating in this Dialogue unanimously adopted the Delhi Declaration calling upon the Taliban to install an inclusive government in Afghanistan, respect the rights of minorities including the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Shias as well as of women and girls, and ensure that the Afghan territory is not used to launch terror attacks against other countries. The same message was reiterated at the Third India-Central Asia Dialogue (India-CAD) convened by India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) with the Foreign Ministers of the five Central Asian countries in New Delhi on 19th-20th December, 2021. All these developments have brought India squarely back to the center of the ongoing global negotiations on Afghanistan. Even the Taliban has realized that India has an important and valuable role to play in restoring stability and economic development of the country.
Relations with Russia: The year witnessed the holding of the 21st Annual Summit between India and Russia, which could not be held in 2020, on account of the ongoing pandemic. Critical remarks were made on the postponement last year suggesting that everything was not fine with the bilateral relationship as both the leaders could have organised a virtual Summit interaction, as they had done with multiple other world leaders. These critics failed to understand and appreciate that the nature and scope of India-Russia bilateral ties is such that justice cannot be done to them through an online summit. President Putin’s visit for barely a few hours on December 6 to Delhi to participate in the summit while the world and his country was witnessing a huge upsurge in coronavirus cases and the threat of confrontation on the Russia-Ukraine border loomed large, is strong testimony to the importance that he accords to relations with India. This was only the second visit by Putin outside the country since the pandemic started 21 months ago and the first bilateral visit, the other having been to Geneva in June, 2021 for a one-on-one with Joe Biden.
The simultaneous holding of the 2+2 Dialogue between the two countries, the only other country in addition to the three Quad partners, to have such a format of discussion has raised the level of bilateral partnership to a level higher than that existed thus far. The bilateral Defence Agreement was extended by a further period of ten years and several fresh initiatives taken in a wide range of spheres including defence, hydrocarbons, connectivity, nuclear energy, trade, Arctic region, Central Asia, the Russian Far East, Afghanistan, counterterrorism, drug trafficking, space and others. The visit and wide-ranging discussions have laid to rest any doubts about the health and dynamism of India-Russia strategic partnership.
In addition to the above, several other major initiatives were taken by India in the field of Climate Change; green energy; launch of the Double I, Double U New Quad comprising of India, Israel, UAE and USA; strengthening of India’s ties with its neighbours with visits by Indian President Kovind and PM Modi to Bangladesh, and many more. All these have imbued India with the requisite mixture of hope, confidence and determination to promote peace, security and prosperity for the region and the world.
Challenges of course remain. In addition to ensuring internal harmony and stability as well as the need to register high levels of economic growth, the most formidable challenge is the continuing aggression by China. With the experience and preparedness over the last many years, India feels confident that it will be able to protect its territorial integrity and sovereignty and continue on the path of economic development and growth in 2022 and beyond.
(Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar, is a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. He is an Executive Council Member at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and President, Institute of Global Studies)
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