India’s diplomacy is in a mission mode not just to save its own citizens but to channelise biliateral and multilateral efforts in fighting the Pandemic collectively
8,503 Indians have been flown back to India in 43 in-bound flights operated by Air India and Air India Express under Vande Bharat Mission in 6 days beginning from May 7, 2020
Being world’s largest democracy is not merely a thing of pride. There is an added responsibility too. Juxtapose these mere facts of life with the COVID-19 crisis, the government of the day has an onerous task at hand to help hundreds of Indians who are overseas and stranded.
Come to this test and the Modi Government has done pretty well. As key stakeholders, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla engage themselves with their counterparts across the globe – a new phraseology has emerged in the boardroom – a new “template of globalisation” and call for neo international institutions to reflect contemporary realities. This neo-globalisation also would mean ensuring safe return home of the ‘stranded Indians’ during the time of crisis.
“With the launch of the Vande Bharat Mission from May 7, the massive Government effort to respond to the Covid-19 situation entered a new phase. The Vande Bharat Mission is the largest and most complex exercise ever undertaken by the government for the repatriation of our nationals stranded overseas,” says Anurag Srivastava, a spokesman in the Ministry of External Affairs.
“We are working very closely with the Ministries of Civil Aviation, Home Affairs, Health & Family Welfare as well as concerned state governments in this exercise,” he explains.
Between May 7 and 14, in fact, as many as 12,000 Indian nationals have safely returned home.
“Fifty six flights have brought back our nationals from 12 countries. Also, 904 Indians were repatriated from Maldives by INS Jalashwa and INS Magar on May 10 and May 12 respectively. Some others have arrived through deportation flights from various countries,” adds Srivastava.
Meanwhile, the government sources have indicated that the second phase of Vande Bharat Mission – to bring back home more Indians - will be launched between May 16 and 22. And the operation will help bring back stranded Indians from 31 countries.
About 150 flights including feeder flights would be deployed for the same. It goes without stating that the evacuation exercise started in March itself. Some of the works required going beyond the call of duty and thus specific interventions were required as in the case of the Diamond Princess crew in Japan or the rescue of pilgrims in Iran.
Much to the credit of the efforts on March 15, 2020, Dr Jaishankar could announce that 234 Indians stranded in Iran returned home. The batch comprised 131 students and 103 pilgrims. Earlier another batch of 44 Indian pilgrims also arrived India from Iran.
In the second phase, in addition to the first list of countries, MEA spokesman said additional 18 countries to be covered under the second phase, i.e. Indonesia, Thailand, Australia, Italy, France, Germany, Ireland, Canada, Japan, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Georgia, Tajikistan and Armenia.
“As you can see, we are broadening the ambit every week in a phased manner, keeping with our quarantine capacity, health protocols, etc. Till now 1,88,646 Indian nationals have registered to return on the portal,” he noted on May 14.
In addition, a total number of 27 flights were ear-marked to take off from the Gulf region during Week 1 - UAE-11, Saudi Arabia-5, Kuwait-5, Bahrain-2, Qatar-2 and Oman-2.
The government also operated seven flights during the first Week from Bangladesh carrying passengers bound for Srinagar, Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. Stranded Indians from abroad would be brought from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Germany, Spain and Thailand. On May 7, 2020 - Air India flight IX-452 from Abu Dhabi to Kochi with 181 passengers and Air India flight IX-344 from Dubai to Kozhikode with 182 passengers.
However, there would be issues and complaints in one form or the other. As expected, there were ‘political challenges’ too as West Bengal Minister Partha Chatterjee, a known close aide of mercurial Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, on May 14 made a very unrealistic but critical tweet. “Is the MEA asking us to believe that there are enough people to come from Georgia to Gujarat but none want to come to Kolkata? Also, there are enough people to come back to Bihar from Kyrgyzstan but not enough to bring back to Bengal?,” wrote Chatterjee.
MEA spokesman Srivastava quickly countered this saying – “MEA does not discriminate between states. GOI’s Vande Bharat Mission is for all stranded Indians, including those from West Bengal. Over 3700 of them have registered for repatriation from different parts of the world”.
In another missive, the MEA spokesman responded: “Will gladly facilitate flights to Kolkata if the State Government confirms arrangements to receive and quarantine. MEA will also help in return of WB residents through land borders with neighbours. We hope to receive an early response on the matter.”
Modi Injects Life to Global Diplomacy
Notwithstanding the row triggered by West Bengal’s ruling party, it goes without stating that in general, the coordination between states and the MEA on the massive evacuation exercise in adherence to the COVID crisis protocols have been very smooth. It is not without good reason that on the day the flight landed in Bhubaneswar, External Affairs Minister Dr Jaishankar was himself on the microblogging site recording his appreciation for the Biju Janata Dal regime in Odisha.
“Pleased to welcome the 1st flight into Odisha. AI Flt 1996 has just landed in Bhubaneswar (on May 14) bringing back 151 Indians from Dubai. Thanks to @airindiain, @MoCA_GoI & Odisha Govt for support and cooperation,” Dr Jaishankar wrote. In this context, examining the smart diplomacy pursued by India and its Prime Minister Modi would be relevant.
There is little to dispute that globally all key power-players were found in confrontation with each other. Most major powers thought the Coronaries could be tackled locally. It was more so in US-China ties and within Europe. But the Indian leadership threw in a surprise and sought to give relevance to something called SAARC, which had almost lost its relevance.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar
So much indifference has been Modi’s approach towards SAARC that for May 2019 swearing-in ceremony, he invited BIMSTEC leaders unlike 2014.
Moreover, Modi kept on talking to international leaders – big and small – and gave a crystal clear message that the unseen virus was a global pandemic and ought to be tackled in an integrated manner. For example, Modi’s interaction with Mette Frederiksen, Prime Minister of Denmark.
“The leaders compared notes on the steps taken in the two countries to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Prime Minister appreciated Denmark’s success in lifting the lockdown restrictions without causing an increase in infections. It was agreed that Indian and Danish experts would remain in touch to learn from each other’s experience,” said the official note.
In another instance, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla got engaged with his counterparts from the United States, Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam in weekly telephonic conversations. This practice of weekly tele conversations was initiated by US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. “These discussions among the partner countries have helped shape informed and coordinated responses to the evacuation of stranded nationals from each other’s territories; maintenance of critical supplies of life-saving medicines and protective health equipment; extension and facilitation of visas for each other’s nationals caught in circumstances beyond their control,” an MEA statement said.
These conversations have brought out the need for real-time communication among partner countries on the evolving challenges and learning from each other’s best practices based on the reality that no one can be safe and secure unless all are safe and secure, it said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla
On May 6 again, PM Modi also spoke to none other than Abiy Ahmed Ali, Prime Minister of a tiny yet important country like Ethiopia. The Prime Minister also discussed Corona crisis with the President of Uganda.
The ‘Non Aligned Movement’ was another platform which was infused with a fresh lease of life with the 21st-century spirit and clamour for new world order.
The Cold War-era relic suddenly shot into the limelight and emerged as a podium to project ‘New’ India’s humanitarian response and global outreach.
PM Modi has underlined in more ways than one that the test of the leadership would remain in how regional and global players come together to work in unity of purpose. The quality of global governance will be truly measured by how the casualty figure is kept at a minimum and fast the world can contain the pandemic.
In his remarks at a meeting with the Chief Ministers, Modi said, “The world has fundamentally changed post COVID-19” like the way it had during and after the Second World War.
Responding to their requests for assistance in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, Government of India sent Indian Naval Ship Kesari to The Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros and Seychelles, carrying on board two Medical Assistance Teams, consignments of COVID related essential medicines and essential food items.
The Medical Assistance Teams are to be deployed in Mauritius and Comoros. The Ship was to deliver consignments of COVID-related essential medicines to Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros and Seychelles and about 600 tonnes of food items to The Maldives. Ayurvedic medicines were also sent to Mauritius.The consignments meant for Madagascar and Comoros also includes Hydroxychloroquine tablets, which have already been sent earlier to Seychelles, The Maldives and Mauritius. Similarly, playing a major role, India supplied medicines to African countries. “This was in keeping with India’s traditionally strong bonds of friendship and solidarity with Africa, which has reached new heights in the last few years”.
India dispatched packages of medicines to more than 25 countries in Africa. This package of medicines includes Hydroxychloroquine, Paracetamol and other drugs which are immediately required to fight the pandemic. Prime Minister had a telephonic conversation on April 17, 2020, with President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, who is the current Chairperson of the African Union. PM also had a telephone conversation with President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda.
Earlier during the month of April 2020, External Affairs Minister Dr Jaishankar had also spoken to his counterparts in several African countries to reiterate India’s solidarity with African people in the fight against COVID-19.
Taking this spirit along Prime Minister also said, “The world is beginning to believe that India can do very well, so much good for the welfare of mankind”.
This optimism has been rightly summed up by External Affairs Minister Dr Jaishankar. “India is today driven by a new vision, a stronger purpose and a deeper commitment. A self-reliant India has more to offer to the world,” he tweeted.