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Indian Navy Soft power – Sailing through pandemic

The epidemic of COVID-19 that swept the globe in 2019-2020 has had severe repercussions in all aspects of public life, from the economic to the political.

Indian Navy Soft power – Sailing through pandemic
The Indian Navy had paid relatively little attention to soft power before the outbreak of COVID-19, focusing instead on the more traditional parts of the Navy. (File/ANI)

By Girish Linganna

The Indian Navy has made a significant contribution to solving the practical problems of combating the pandemic while at the same time acting as a tool for expanding Indian influence in the region and maintaining relations with significant partners.

The epidemic of COVID-19 that swept the globe in 2019-2020 has had severe repercussions in all aspects of public life, from the economic to the political. India was no different. It compelled the government to reduce other budget items related to security. The Navy suffered most cuts, whose benefits for India, which mostly engages in land-based territorial disputes with its neighbours, are less apparent than those of the army and air force.

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Under these circumstances, the Indian Navy was faced with a variety of tasks, including containing the spread of coronavirus infection among personnel, providing all possible assistance in the fight against the pandemic in the country, evacuating citizens who were abroad, and providing assistance to foreign countries, all while continuing combat training and completing traditional duties, such as maintaining control over the ocean, projecting power, and defending against potential threats.

The Indian Navy had paid relatively little attention to soft power before the outbreak of COVID-19, focusing instead on the more traditional parts of the Navy. Indian sailors, after studying the experiences of their American and Chinese counterparts, came to recognise the significance of “soft power” and began to employ it. However, this process was sluggish, primarily because the Indian Navy is far behind the naval superpowers.

Joseph Nye, who originated the term “soft power,” defined it as the capacity to achieve one’s goals through attraction rather than coercion or bribery. It stems from the allure of a nation’s culture, political values, and policies. Among the methods of such extensive “soft power,” the Navy’s humanitarian initiatives stand out. In contrast to the Chinese Navy, the Indian Navy has neither specifically constructed hospital ships nor experienced employing them. The actions of Indian sailors in recent years, however, imply that New Delhi is contemplating the use of proactive marine “soft power.”

In addition, India employs marine “soft power” to assist neighbouring countries impacted by natural catastrophes in a highly efficient manner. Some of them frequently occur, like monsoon rains and cyclones that cause widespread flooding, allowing one to prepare for their coming beforehand.

The efforts of the First Training Squadron of the Indian Navy in March 2019, after Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique, demonstrate the application of Indian maritime “soft power.” Four days later, the patrol ships “Sujata” and “Sarathi” and the tank landing ship “Shardul,” which were in the open sea at the time, landed in the cyclone-ravaged port of Beira. About 5,000 people were evacuated from the ships, and distribution centres for food and fresh water, as well as medical services, were established. The crews of the ships also gathered clothing and blankets for the victims. The tank landing ship “Shardul’s” ship’s helicopter participated in the rescue operations. All efforts were conducted in close cooperation with the military authority in the area. One hundred ninety-two individuals were rescued by Indian sailors, while 1,381 Mozambicans received medical aid. This mission substantially enhanced India’s worldwide reputation and demonstrated that its Navy could operate as a “security provider” in the region when it comes to mitigating natural catastrophes’ effects. In the case of the 2018 Bergitta cyclone, the Indian Navy properly calculated the storm’s path and dispatched the Deepak and Sharda ships with humanitarian relief to Mauritius.

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In addition to providing disaster relief, the Indian Navy also coordinates the evacuation of civilians from conflict zones. The most recent example at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic is Operation Rahat, conducted by the Indian armed forces when the coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in 2015. Three ships (Sumitra, Mumbai, and Tarkash) evacuated 3074 people, including 1291 foreigners, from the nation.

In India, the first cases of coronavirus infection were reported in February 2020, although the first cases in the fleet were not discovered until two and a half months later. On April 18, the spokesman for the Indian Navy’s fleet staff, Vivek Madhwal, reported a total of 21 incidents, 20 of which occurred at the Angre coastal naval facility in Mumbai.

We can say that the Indian Navy was operating during the pandemic based on the available facts. Due to stringent access control and military discipline, naval bases were able to prevent mass epidemics.
Operation Samudra Setu

“Samudra Setu” (translated from Hindi as “Sea Bridge”), the operation to evacuate Indian civilians by sea, was the first and most critical. It began on May 5, 2020, as part of the government’s Vande Bharat Mission, which provided for the evacuation from overseas to India of all Indian people who chose to come home before the conclusion of the epidemic. It was expected that the Navy would repatriate up to 10,000 individuals. For the operation, the Jalashva landing transport dock and the Airavat, Shardul, and Magar tank landing ships were chosen. They were stocked with essential rations, and their onboard infirmaries were stocked with anti-infection medications and other supplies. For the length of the expedition, female officers and physicians were added to the teams, and it was their responsibility to maintain touch with female passengers. A few hours after the ship’s arrival in Kochi, the single passenger who was set to give birth shortly, Sonia Jacob, was freed of her load.

The operation lasted a total of 55 days, during which the ships and boats involved travelled a total of 23,000 kilometres. The operation resulted in the evacuation of 3,992 persons from Iran, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives by sea to India.

Operation Sagar

If “Samudra Setu” was primarily intended to implement the domestic political commitments of the state to its citizens, then “Sagar” had obvious foreign policy objectives. It envisioned providing support in the fight against the epidemic to the minor states of the Indian Ocean region, with whom India had important geopolitical ties. Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros, and Seychelles, which are small and medium-sized island nations in the Indian Ocean region, were the aid recipients. To participate in the mission, the Kesari tank landing ship was selected, and 580 tonnes of food, medicine, and medical teams were placed onto it.

Thus, the Kesari journey became a visible indication of India’s willingness to assist the island states of the Indian Ocean basin while simultaneously articulating India’s true interests in the region. New Delhi considers all countries in whose ports the ship docked to be strategically vital for retaining dominance over the Indian Ocean.

Given the widespread concern of a pandemic, this display of “soft power” should considerably enhance India’s image in the eyes of the island states’ inhabitants. Significantly, Indian medical personnel worked in three of the five destinations – the Maldives, Comoros, and Mauritius, which India considers to be its most significant islands. The return voyage of the Kesari, which transported the medical teams left behind on the islands, lasted 49 days and covered 14,000 kilometres.

Joint Military drills

The holding of joint exercises with the fleets of other nations was a significant factor in demonstrating India’s foreign policy priorities. The format of naval manoeuvres proved to be quite practical: unlike ground exercises, naval manoeuvres do not require mandatory contact between military personnel. Coordination of actions, the transmission of orders, and interaction development are carried out at sea.

The Indian Navy conducted Indra, Jimex, and Malabar exercises in the same year, despite the cancellation of the March 2020 MILAN exercises, which were to involve the fleets of 41 countries.

Using these movements, the Indian Navy was able to solve two problems simultaneously. First, to preserve the fighting capabilities of the quarantined teams and coastal services and to retain touch with the ships, an interaction that New Delhi deems essential. Exercise has been shown to be an effective means of sending political signals. The Indian Navy kept its balance with Russia and the Quad members.

In conclusion, it may be stated that the operations of the Indian fleet during the epidemic are of theoretical and practical interest. India has effectively used its Navy as a tool to maintain and expand its influence during an emergency and has demonstrated that it can fulfil the role of a security provider in the face of non-traditional threats, significantly bolstering its position against the backdrop of China’s lack of involvement in the situation, which the elites of many island states viewed as an alternative to India. In reality, India has specified a region of major interest for itself through its humanitarian operations: South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Author is Aerospace & Defence Analyst

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First published on: 03-12-2022 at 15:17 IST