India has come under fire ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government barred the Serum Institute of India (SII) from sending promised five million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines to the UK and thereby severely delaying the country’s COVID-19 vaccination programme.
The BJP government is being accused of ‘vaccine nationalism’ and stopping the export of the Oxford vaccine, as a retaliation to British MPs and Peers’ criticism of the Modi government’s treatment of protesting farmers, NGOs, human rights abuses and general deterioration in democratic values.
In fact, Modi has been called “vain”, “contemptuous”, “high-handed” and a populist leader who cannot be depended upon. Ironically, the right-wing newspaper The Daily Mail ridiculed Modi in an article headlined ‘What else can we expect from a leader so vain he named a vast stadium after himself?’ obviously referring to the renaming of Sardar Vallabbhai Patel sports stadium in Ahmedabad to the Narendra Modi Stadium last month.
“The decision to block vaccine exports by the Indian government — led by the vain Narendra Modi, who seems increasingly bent on becoming Prime Minister for life — is an act of blatant populism,” wrote Mark Almond, author, historian and director of the Crisis Research Institute in Oxford in The Daily Mail. He goes on to compare the Modi Stadium with the only other arena in the world with a similar capacity, the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in North Korea and adds the sting in the tale – “and even that is not named after a living leader!”
Britain has been among the worst COVID-hit countries in the West, with more than 1.26 lakh people dying from the dreaded disease. The country is currently coming out of its second wave but it is still under its third national lockdown. Since UK began its vaccination programme in early December, more than 28 million Britons, that is half of the adult population, have received their first jab and nearly two and half million have had both their vaccine shots.
The British government had hoped to vaccinate all its adult population by the end of July, however the ban on vaccines from SII has thrown a spanner in the calculation. The government had announced that they would start vaccinating people between the ages of 40 and 50 years in April with their first jab and also continue to give the older cohort their second shots. However, with this break in the supply chain, they now expect the first and second jabs to be delayed by a few months.
The main vaccine being administered in the UK is the AstraZeneca along with a much smaller amount of the Pfizer one. The AstraZeneca doses are being procured mostly from their European producers, but Britain also had an agreement with SII in Pune for 10 million doses, of which, so far it has received just 5 million. Suddenly, a few days ago, the Modi government stopped the export of the remaining 5 million doses from SII claiming that it needed them for its domestic vaccination programme.
The timing of the ban, immediately after a debate in the House of Commons over the Modi government’s handling of the farmers’ protests and a debate in the House of Lords about the “Restrictions on Freedoms in India”, in which both MPs and Peers were extremely critical of the Indian state, has raised questions over its motive and purpose.
“Earlier this month, the Indian government cried foul over perceived interference in its internal politics by the UK, after MPs raised questions over the controversial new agriculture laws and the seemingly undemocratic reaction by authorities to some protests by farmers in India,” pointed out Mattha Busby, a health journalist in The Guardian, suggesting a conceivable reason for the sudden ban on exports.
While India had responded strongly to the farmers’ protests debate by British MPs, the debate on “freedoms” in the House of Lords a week later has stung the Modi government more. During the debate more than eight Lords cutting across party lines urged the UK government to make representations to India on the closure of Amnesty International India, the situation in Kashmir, “imprisonment of journalists and the fear of persecution felt by non-Hindu minorities, Dalit activists, NGOs and all those campaigning against human rights violations”.
A Conservative peer pointed out that until now India had “broadly upheld the democratic principles and traditions she inherited from the UK.” However, “it is now observable that the Indian government has restructured some hitherto democratic freedoms in a number of areas”, said Lord Howard Flight.
The Lords have urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is scheduled to visit India in April, to discuss with Modi the “importance of a free civil society in a democracy”. Boris, on the other hand, has tried to avoid making a connection between the criticism of the Modi government and the vaccine export ban.
Instead, he has tried to deflect and defend the SII arguing that delays happened “very frequently in vaccine rollout programmes” and that his government wanted to do “a huge amount of work” with SII “over the weeks and months ahead”.
Johnson does not wish to upset the apple cart and jeopardise his connections with SII, as his government desperately needs the vaccination programme to run smoothly in order to placate his domestic audience and counter mistakes he has made over the COVID crisis in the last one year.