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With BRICS a divided house, New Delhi’s vaccine diplomacy may pave the way for a revival of India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) grouping. In the post pandemic world order, the impact of this could even be felt in the UN.
The new decade has begun and so has India’s global vaccine diplomacy. After sending millions of vaccines to its immediate neighborhood, India sent its first consignment of 1 million shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced by Adar Poonawala’s Serum Institute of India on February 1. As the vaccine factory of the world–India accounts for nearly 60 percent of global vaccine production, India will send another 10 million doses to the African continent in days to come.
Four days later, a consignment of 2 million ready to use doses of the same AstraZeneca vaccine also reached another corner of the planet in Brazil. India’s success at not only curbing and managing the virus within the country, while ring fencing it with a massive domestic vaccination programme but not letting it hamper immunization in other countries through exports has raised its stature globally. It has also opened up new opportunities particularly coinciding with India’s two-year tenure as a non-permanent member of UN Security Council in January this year.
One of these possibilities is the revival of IBSA–a grouping of India, Brazil and South Africa, that was envisioned in 2003 but lost its way since 2013 after South Africa joined the bigger BRICS in late 2010. Unlike BRICS, which has two permanent UNSC members–China and Russia, IBSA was envisioned as a platform to align the worldview of the three emerging countries. Between 2006 and 2011, five summits were held where the heads of the three states met to have a heart-to-heart discussion on various global matters. It petered out after the then Brazilian President Dilma Roussef’s did not confirm his participation at the sixth summit in New Delhi in 2013 which led to it being cancelled. Later, it was planned again in India in 2015 as well but it did not see the light of the day either.
With China’s presence in BRICS causing divisions in the grouping, not least because of the deterioration of Sino India ties since the summer of 2020 itself, IBSA is back on the table. The first move to revive it was made at an informal meeting of the foreign ministers of the three countries in Pretoria in June 2018. That was followed by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivering the first IBSA Gandhi-Mandela lecture in Delhi in January 2019. He was also the chief guest at the annual Republic Day parade that year. A year later in 2020, it would be the turn of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro to be the chief guest.
Unlike BRICS, a grouping like IBSA truly represents a collaboration of equals. The countries share cordial and deep relations with each other with not a single bone of contention of any sort, historical or otherwise. Trade between the three is also on an upswing albeit on a relatively small base, which provides added embellishment. More importantly, not one country is economically or militarily too big for the other two, all are hungry for growth and share a common multilateral vision for the world. The most compelling evidence of this is in the clamor for a reform in the UN that has been voiced with equal exuberance on separate occasions by all the three. While Russia and China are already permanent members in the UN, they have little interest in expanding the council. On the contrary, in IBSA, the group is unequivocally supportive of each other’s ambitions and aspirations.
While a sixth summit is still yet to happen, a lot of work has already been done in the last few years. Besides the meetings between the foreign ministers, trilateral ministerial commission meetings have taken place in 2017 and 2018. Other relatively small but significant collaborations have happened by way of IBSA Visiting fellows programme through Delhi based think tank RIS and the IBSA Fund which has so far implemented 31 projects in countries like Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Palestine, Cambodia and Vietnam.
In the recent past, India has demonstrated commendable leadership on the world stage–be it in the fight against climate change, International Solar Alliance or strengthening the voice of smaller countries in multilateral foras like the UN. The goodwill from the vaccine diplomacy gives it the moral heft and authority to bring IBSA back into the limelight.
It could eventually pave the way for much needed expansion and reforms in the UN to assimilate voices from emerging countries in Asia, Africa and South America. In a world where multilateralism is faltering, it is not only a crying need but also a desirable one.