COVID-19 vaccine certificate controversy: Britain can antagonise India at its own peril

The British taught us bureaucracy. Like Macaulayism, bureaucracy was envisaged to keep former colonies bound by red tape, if not chains. We ...

The British taught us bureaucracy. Like Macaulayism, bureaucracy was envisaged to keep former colonies bound by red tape, if not chains. We may not have been able to get rid of these invisible shackles in the last 75 years, but we have come a long way – propelled by education and economic progress, most notably visible in the IT sector.

In contrast, the story of our former colonial masters back home has not been so glorious. Nowadays, the sun takes its daily breaks from lighting up the empire, as it were. The international date line has now turned digital from analog. And Britain appears critically close to falling on the other side of the digital divide going by the recent controversy over COVID-19 vaccine certificates.

But is the issue really one about a technical dispute? As Indrani Bagchi, one of our foremost foreign affairs analysts tweeted: “India gets many things wrong, but I will say that our vaccine certificate with a QR code that can be verified in real-time isn’t one of them.”

If the possibility of fraud is a concern, British authorities must be reminded that the Indian COVID-19 vaccine certificate can be verified online, in real-time and in less than a minute – much like many other documents issued by the government such as a passport.

Consider the list of countries from where the UK will accept certification by a “relevant public health body”. It sounds a bit rich that British authorities find certificates from Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Bahrain, Brunei, Dominica and Taiwan kosher, but not those from India. Thus, as Bagchi says in a subsequent tweet, it does not quite pass the "smell-test".

In this regard, a somewhat curt reaction from the British High Commissioner here to a tweet by India Today journalist Shiv Aroor assumes significance. Aroor, in a tweet, suggested Indian authorities should put all travellers from the UK through mandatory quarantine irrespective of their Covid status. To this, the British envoy jumped in to say “India is already doing that”, quoting a portion from the Indian travel advisory for incoming travellers from overseas.

Could that, therefore, be the pain point? It seems unlikely. If the disagreement was on a minor point of reciprocity, it could have been easily resolved over a brief telephone call. Reading between the lines, one gets the impression that the jab of contention is more than skin deep. It is neither clinical nor technical, but one of diplomatic one-upmanship.

It may not be out of place to recall that some time ago the UK had put India on the “Red List", which meant mandatory 10 quarantining of travellers returning from India. The issue was resolved with active lobbying by the Indian diaspora. But, even then, the undercurrents of animosity were palpable.

Notwithstanding the relentless negative portrayal of India’s handling of the Covid second wave by the Western media, ably ratcheted by inimical interests inside and outside the country, it is becoming increasingly clear that we have fared better than anyone expected. Now, as the fa├žade of control that some of the developed countries projected is coming unstuck, there is a need to find a fall guy. At this juncture, India’s phenomenal ramp-up of vaccination is not music to many people’s ears. Add to that the snub to Big Pharma, who were trying to bamboozle their way into the Indian market. In such a situation, some may find it convenient to bore holes into India’s vaccination story, raising doubts about both the efficacy of vaccines as well as the numbers reported by questioning the authenticity of Co-Win vaccine certificates.

It is a pity though that some of our own intellectuals living overseas add to this motivated propaganda with preposterous statements such as the one below.

While such self-appointed arbiters may be advised to keep their own counsel, India cannot take the developments lightly.

While one would not like to subscribe to conspiracy theories, the equation may not be as simple as it may appear on the surface. Though India has once again reiterated the right to “reciprocate”, that by itself may not cut it. There is a need for a larger engagement to convey in no uncertain terms the dangers of alienating India in the global fight against Covid-19. After all their posturing and gamesmanship, international manufacturers are realising that they cannot produce the volume of vaccine the world requires without using India’s capabilities. India’s utility is not limited to vaccine supplies alone.

India needs to be an equal partner on a host of other responses – not the least among them is our Co-Win software. In this situation, Britain can antagonise India at its own peril. And the ramifications of it will not be restricted to the Covid response alone.

Our approach to this seemingly petulant attitude of Britain cannot be applying balm or band-aid. It is unfortunate that when India and the world have major geo-political challenges in hand and the Prime Minister is in the United States for an important state visit, the Foreign Office has to deal with these petty matters. However, we cannot ignore such provocations, albeit minor.

A multi-stakeholder strategy – involving not only the diaspora but, perhaps, enlisting the support of British businesses in India since their interests are likely to be impacted in the long run – in addition to other allies in the Covid battle is called for, even if it appears an overkill.

Recently, a senior Indian politician quipped about a rival party, saying they are like impoverished landlords living in dilapidated castles but still have the delusion of ruling everything they survey. A similar subtle message needs to be delivered to the UK in gentle diplomatese.

(The author is a current affairs commentator, marketer, blogger and leadership coach. Views expressed are personal)

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India World News: COVID-19 vaccine certificate controversy: Britain can antagonise India at its own peril
COVID-19 vaccine certificate controversy: Britain can antagonise India at its own peril
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