Vaccine diplomacy and drama

Topics Vaccine | diplomacy | BS Opinion

It’s Priti Patel of course. The home secretary, backed by two other ethnic Indian ministers, Rishi Sunak and Alok Sharma, probably instigated Boris Johnson, the deceptively flaxen-haired émigré Turk prime minister, to turn up his nose at Covishield whose Oxford imprimatur should endear itself to a former president of the Oxford Union. But immigrants who make good often don’t want reminders of the old country. Given New Delhi’s current fascination with Kautilya, there might also be a more complex explanation for the fusillade of tits for tats between Britai.....
It’s Priti Patel of course. The home secretary, backed by two other ethnic Indian ministers, Rishi Sunak and Alok Sharma, probably instigated Boris Johnson, the deceptively flaxen-haired émigré Turk prime minister, to turn up his nose at Covishield whose Oxford imprimatur should endear itself to a former president of the Oxford Union. But immigrants who make good often don’t want reminders of the old country.

Given New Delhi’s current fascination with Kautilya, there might also be a more complex explanation for the fusillade of tits for tats between Britain and India. It began with a Labour party by-election poster showing Narendra Modi shaking hands with Mr Johnson over the caption, “Don't risk a Tory MP who is not on your side”. Labour’s churlishness may cause no heartburn to a prime minister who boasts of transforming 30 million families into lakhpatis (presumably they were not crorepatis before) even if there’s no sign of the promised Rs 15 lakh in every bank account. But the poster and Mr Johnson’s eulogy of Mr Modi’s “fantastic leadership” may have suggested how the pitch can be patriotically queered from Lakhimpur Kheri to Oxford Street for socially ambitious, globe-trotting, attention-grabbing Congressmen without murderously driving SUVs into anybody.

Ms Patel and Messrs Sunak and Sharma are like the androgynous Shikhandi in the Mahabharata, tellingly translated as “Greater India” by the government’s whiz kid economist-historian, Sanjeev Sanyal. Ms Patel cannot possibly be guilty of “offensive” or “racist” action after piously brandishing “the Hindu word sewa which means service, commitment and dedication to others” at a Conservative conference. So, Congress politicians infuriated by the new British rules robbing them of their vilayati holiday and shopping sprees accuse Mr Johnson instead. Although the astute Mr Modi patriotically clamped reciprocal restrictions on British travellers, his fulminations sound far less angry.

“So what would Kautilya do if he were alive today?” Mr Sanyal asks. According to his critic, Meera Visvanathan, he would “fix the judicial system; invest heavily in internal security to put down terrorists, Maoists, criminals and mobs of various kinds; and dramatically simplify the taxation system and administrative structure.” That too fits.

India transferred five million jabs to Britain in need. The AstraZeneca injections my wife and I were given in London may have been desi imports. Moreover, Mr Johnson wants to sell India whisky, not 26-year-old Glenfiddich but cheap blends he calls “clinkie” because the bottles clinked in his suitcase when he smuggled them into Delhi for his ex in-laws. But mulling over Napoleon’s crack about the nation of shopkeepers, I remembered my mother visiting my brother in Liberia 40 years ago. That, in turn, suggested that although fake Covishield is not unknown, Mr Johnson’s real fear may concern Indian certificates more than Indian vaccines.

The Liberia flight demanded vaccination against yellow fever. Or was it the plague? Anyway, it was some dire disease thought to be rampant in Asia. “No problem” murmured our resourceful travel agent, “Twenty rupees only”. What for? He produced a little yellow booklet covered in indecipherable seals. “The certificate!” He didn’t know whether vaccination for yellow fever (or was it the plague?) actually existed; he had never heard of anyone suffering the needle. All his clients paid Rs 20 for the booklet.

We cannot have been unique among Indian cities. An American diplomat told me that no matter what ingenious devices the state department introduced to make US visas secure, Delhi and Mumbai forgers were always a step ahead. Manufacturing legal documents for every occasion was traditionally a cottage industry in a particular Bengal district.

But Indian ingenuity and enterprise are now beginning to face stiff competition. Lucy Moreton of the British immigration service announced earlier this year that at least a thousand passengers with fake Covid-19 vaccination certificates are caught at British ports of entry every single day. “That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” she said, blaming the absence of any international standard. “There is no way to know which documents are real and which are not!”

What would she have said to recent disclosures of a flourishing worldwide racket with sellers promising access to a Covid-19 passport on Britain’s National Health Service's Track and Trace app within 30 minutes of the applicant forking out ^200 (about Rs 17,295). French and German Covid-19 passports cost the same. It’s all online, the phantom digital world where an animated gif (graphics interchange format) blurs the boundaries between genuine and bogus, real and unreal.

The silver lining lies in adapting and expanding Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s much-quoted “What Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow” to “What India thought yesterday, the world is thinking today”. Hindus may not have flown the first aeroplane, pioneered stem cell technology or practised plastic surgery as our rulers fondly believe, but India still leads the world in one respect.



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