May 05 Editorial

1. A COVID blot on India’s foreign policy canvas

A direct consequence of the pandemic is that New Delhi’s claim to regional primacy and leadership could take a hit

GS 2: International Relations


  • The second wave of COVID-19 and its agonizing consequences, prompting the country to accept foreign aid after a gap of 17 years, is bound to have far-reaching strategic implications for India.
  • While the world realizes that India is too important to ignore, which perhaps explains the rush to help.
  • As a direct consequence of the pandemic, New Delhi’s claim to regional primacy and leadership will take a major hit, its ‘leading power’ aspirations will be dented, and accentuate its domestic political contestations.
  • These in turn will impact the content and conduct of India’s foreign policy in the years to come.

Regional Primacy

  • COVID 2.0 has quickened the demise of India’s regional primacy.
  • The country’s geopolitical decline is likely to begin in the neighbourhood itself, a strategic space which New Delhi has been forced to cede to Beijing over the past decade.
  • Its political influence is steadily declining, its ability to materially help the neighbourhood will shrink in the wake of COVID-19, and its historical ties alone may not do wonders to hold on to a region hungry for development assistance and political autonomy.
  • This might result in the bandwagoning of South Asian states with China which are in dire need of development assistance.
  • In July 2015, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, who was then the Foreign Secretary, stated that India aspires to be a “leading power, rather than just a balancing power”. 
  • Being boxed in a China-dominated region will provide New Delhi with little space to pursue its regional, let alone global, geopolitical ambitions except in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • While the Indo-Pacific is geopolitically keen and ready to engage with India, the pandemic could adversely impact India’s ability and desire to contribute to the Indo-Pacific and the Quad.
  • COVID-19, for instance, will prevent any ambitious military spending or modernisation plans (called for in the wake of the stand-off at the Line of Actual Control (LAC)) and limit the country’s attention on global diplomacy and regional geopolitics, be it Afghanistan or Sri Lanka or the Indo-Pacific.
  • With reduced military spending and lesser diplomatic attention to regional geopolitics, our ability to project power and contribute to the growth of the Quad will be uncertain.
  • The outpouring of global aid shows India is too important but it also puts a question on India’s ability to be a “leading power”.
  •  New Delhi is pivotal to the Indo-Pacific project, but with India’s inability to take a lead role and China wooing smaller states in the region away from the Indo-Pacific with aid and threats, the Indo-Pacific balance of power could eventually turn in Beijing’s favour.

Domestic Politics

  • Domestic political contestations in the wake of the COVID-19 devastation in the country could also limit New Delhi’s strategic ambitions.
  • General economic distress, a fall in foreign direct investment and industrial production, and a rise in unemployment have already lowered the mood in the country. 
  • The upcoming elections may fan communal tensions on the country, triggering more violence.
  • A depressed economy, politically volatile domestic space combined with a lack of elite consensus on strategic matters would hardly inspire confidence in the international system about India. 

India-China Equations

  • One potential impact of COVID-19’s devastating return and the damage it has done would be that India might be forced to be more conciliatory towards China, albeit reluctantly.
  • From competing with China’s vaccine diplomacy a few months ago, New Delhi today is forced to seek help from the international community, if not China, to deal with the worsening COVID-19 situation at home.
  •  China has, compared to most other countries, emerged stronger in the wake of the pandemic.The world, notwithstanding its anti-China rhetoric, will continue to do business with Beijing — it already has been, and it will only increase.
  • It is yet unsure of the nature of China-U.S. relations in the days ahead, the rise of China and India’s COVID-19-related troubles could prompt Washington to hedge its bets on Beijing.
  •  Finally, claims that India could compete with China as a global investment and manufacturing destination would remain just that — claims.
  • Due to mismanagement of the second wave of COVID-19 India’s ability to stand to China has diminished today, in terms of political will and balance of power.

Depressed Foreign Policy

  • Given the much reduced political capital within the current government to pursue ambitious foreign policy goals, the diplomatic bandwidth for expansive foreign policy goals would be limited, leading thereby to a much depressed Indian foreign policy. 
  • This, however, might take the aggressive edge off of India’s foreign policy under the current regime. Less aggression could potentially translate into more accommodation, reconciliation and cooperation especially in the neighbourhood, with Pakistan on the one hand and within the broader South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) framework on the other.
  • The aftermath of the pandemic may kindle such a conciliatory tone in Indian foreign policy for other reasons as well. COVID-19 has forced us to reimagine, to some extent at least, the friend enemy equations in global geopolitics.
  • Initially United States seemed hesitant, to assist India even as the pandemic was wreaking havoc in the country, Moscow was quick to come to New Delhi’s aid.
  • Even though New Delhi did not accept the aid offers from Pakistan and China, these offers sounded more than the usual diplomatic grandstanding that states engage in during natural calamities.
  • It is true that these changes will not lead to fundamental shifts in India’s strategic partnerships, but that they could definitely moderate the sharp edges of India’s pre-existing geopolitical articulations.

Strategic autonomy

  • The pandemic would, at the very least indirectly, impact India’s policy of maintaining strategic autonomy.
  • Strategic consequences of the pandemic are bound to shape and structure India’s foreign policy choices as well as constrain India’s foreign policy agency.
  • It could become more susceptible to external criticism for, a post-COVID-19 New Delhi might find it harder to resist demands of a closer military relationship with the U.S.


  • Every crisis opens up the possibility for change and new thinking.  COVID-19 will open up new regional opportunities for cooperation especially under the ambit of SAARC.
  •  New Delhi might do well to get the region’s collective focus on ‘regional health multilateralism’ to promote mutual assistance and joint action on health emergencies such as this.
  • Classical geopolitics should be brought on a par with health diplomacy, environmental concerns and regional connectivity in South Asia. COVID-19 may have opened precisely such an opportunity to the world’s least integrated region.

2. An issue of lives versus livelihoods

That the situations faced by India’s migrants are not a matter of concern in policymaking is quite apparent

GS 3: Indian Economy


  • Strict lockdown in many parts of the country leading to job termination of many informal workers.
  • A large chunk of informal workers include migrants are facing job losses, loss of rented accommodations, a lack of sustainable income and savings to ensure food, transportation back to villages or any other emergency including falling victim to COVI-19.

Grim to grimmer

  •  Migrants are forced to pay exorbitant sums for their travel. No bright prospect awaits them there given the state of rural distress which initially pushed them to seek a better future in the urban areas.
  •  They do not expect new job opportunities, especially under shrinking National Rural Employment Guarantee Act allotments by the government.
  • The continuing exodus unofficially records figures upward of 4 lakh (Western Railway) between April 1 and 12, while the Central Railways sent back 4.7 lakh migrants, all from Maharashtra, over the last few weeks.
  •  They may be described as as ‘mobile by default’, with growing rural distress and inadequate official policies failing to support the ailing rural economy.
  • The conditions faced by these workers under a ‘curfew-to-lockdown’ status include the immediate termination of their livelihoods in terms of jobs, access to accommodation and near insolvency.
  • There is no official data available either of incoming or outgoing thus making it difficult for policy formulation. The recent official announcement of free ration of 5 kg cereals to 80 crore families is the only sop visible so far.

Questions for the state

  •  The flow provided a reserve army of cheap labour waiting to be hired at wages which, often, could dip lower than the statutory minimum, especially after meeting the demands of the mediating contractor who arranged for the migration from villages.
  • With the formal organised industry employing as many as one half or more of employees with casual or informal status, it proved rather opportune for enterprises in factories, construction sites and other labour-intensive activities to make use of these migrants in their cost-cutting exercises.
  •  The presence of the rural migrants benefited the urban economy by providing cheap labour to manufacturing units and cheap services to households.
  •  However, these jobs provided did not entail further obligations on the part of the employers or the state, given that the ‘footloose’ migrants never had any legal status as a working population.

No labour safeguards

  •  No current legislation, provide any evidence of addressing the issue, especially in the current crisis.
  • The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970 conferred on casual labour a legal status by providing a mechanism for registration of contractors engaging 20 or more workers.
  •  Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 has replaced all such Acts. Seeking, rather ineffectively, to regulate the health and safety conditions of workers in establishments with 10 or more workers, the Code has replaced 13 prevailing labour laws.


The laws have been unable to stop the exploitation of migrants. It is thus more than obvious that none of the so-called corrective measures has failed to tackle the issue effectively.

Can we justify the situation as a step to save lives when it does not work for large sections of migrant people who also experience a loss of their livelihoods at the same time? Could there be some safeguards for such people before sending them off to such a bleak future?


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