Discretion has never been one of Donald Trump’s virtues. In fact, he has built his macho image assiduously by playing the bully. However, after the enthusiastic welcome of a stadium full of cheering Amdavadis, organised by PM Narendra Modi for the US President in late February, India expected more respectful treatment. The skirmish started after India imposed a ban on 24 pharmaceutical drugs on March 3 after the coronavirus pandemic began disrupting supply chains globally.
One of them, hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), inexpensive treatment for malaria and rheumatoid arthritis, has been touted by Trump as a possible antidote to suppressing the deadly COVID-19. Trump sought a reversal of the ban for HCQ, but in the most intemperate language. “If he (the Indian PM) doesn’t allow it (HCQ) to come out that would be okay but, of course, there may be retaliation. Why wouldn’t there be?” Trump boasted at a press conference.
By Tuesday morning, the export restrictions on most drugs had been lifted. As a face-saver, the statement said exports were being opened not only for the US but also for other “nations badly affected by the virus”. This is not the first instance of Trump’s strong-arm tactics. In September 2018, when the US was attempting to isolate Iran, Trump demanded India stop import of Iranian oil. Though the terms and price were beneficial to India, the US arm-twisted us into compliance. Earlier, removing tariffs imposed on imported Harley-Davidson bikes was also made a prestige issue. With India being the largest producer of generic drugs and HCQ, it is understandable that we take a humane view to supplying crucial medicines to those global hotspots where lives can be saved.
This must be balanced though with our own needs for a steady supply to domestic markets. If hydroxychloroquine does turn out to be a gamechanger to stem COVID-19, our capacity to produce 100 tonnes a month would put India ahead of the curve. In this context, the US has no right to meddle with India’s export policy, and our government would do well not to bend to such arm-twisting.