Ro Khanna, the dynamic progressive US representative from California, was inspired to enter politics by the legacy of his grandfather, Amarnath Vidyalankar (1901–1985), the legendary Indian trade unionist, independence campaigner, and parliamentarian. Though he was born and raised in the United States, Khanna traveled frequently to India as a youth, and he speaks movingly of how “our family’s values come from my grandfather’s embrace of a Gandhian worldview”—in particular, Mahatma Gandhi’s belief “in the oneness not of merely all human life but in the oneness of all that lives.”
In recent weeks, as India has been devastated by a coronavirus outbreak that has seen record-breaking levels of infection and death, Khanna has emerged as an advocate for global interventions to fight the surge—outlining strategies for the United States to send protective gear, oxygen, and vaccines, and leading the charge to get President Joe Biden’s support to have the World Trade Organization approve a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver so that India and other countries can produce Covid-19 vaccines. After the Biden administration signaled that it would support the waiver of intellectual property protections, easing patent restrictions on the production of life-saving vaccines, I spoke with Khanna about the vital struggle to get vaccines to India.
There are several things that went wrong. One, a complete disregard for social distancing, and this idea of returning to normal [before widespread vaccination programs could be implemented], which obviously was a disaster.
Second, a lack of having the capacity on vaccines. Partly, that was because the TRIPS waiver should have been granted months earlier. There should have been more of a global manufacturing commitment. The last administration [under former president Donald Trump] did nothing on that. There should have been a greater effort in general, in these countries, to assist them with the development of the vaccine.
Third, I think this has exposed the failures of the Indian health care system. The health care system has a long way to go to be able to take care of the needs of people in crisis, and it shows the massive need for development.
JN: Let’s focus on the vaccine issue. Clearly, we should have been thinking a year ago, as vaccines were being developed, about how to get this moment right. Why, when the United States and other countries clearly knew this was a global crisis, wasn’t it?
RK: One issue is the “America first” foreign policy. There was no regard for what [the pandemic] means for the rest of the world.
Here it‘s important to distinguish a responsible and ultimately self-interested concern for people in other parts of the world from a rootless cosmopolitanism. No one is saying that we were wrong to prioritize Americans or to prioritize our communities. That’s perfectly appropriate. Nations should do that.
What was totally shortsighted, morally wrong, and foolish is that there was no consideration after we prioritized our own nation of what we were going to do and what our responsibility was to the rest of the world.
We aren’t an island. I mean, the disease is going to continue to come back to us.
We could have taken some very simple measures. We could have said, “We have a license for the vaccine”—meaning other countries pay for it, other countries compensate Pfizer or Moderna—“but we’re going to at least license the vaccine formula.” We could have set up a global manufacturing fund so that other countries would be manufacturing the vaccine without hurting our supply.
None of that was done. As a consequence, there are thousands of people dying around the world who shouldn’t be and we’re at much greater risk, because all these variants are coming back into the United States, making it harder for us to get past the disease.
JN: You believe that President Biden did the right thing, that the administration did the right thing, with their embrace of the TRIPS waiver.
RK: I would say they did more than the right thing. They did the courageous thing. This was a tough decision.
JN: How so?
RK: I heard it from Silicon Valley. The amount of people saying, “I’m disappointed. I’m never going to support you on a waiver on IP [intellectual property] law.” The lobby for IP protection in this country goes beyond the pharmaceutical industry.
There are a lot of people in business who view that as the Holy Grail, something untouchable. They believe that you do not dilute IP rights. And I am sure, if I was facing that as a member of Congress, that must have been a hundredth of what the president was facing.
My understanding, having talked to people in the administration, is that a lot of people in the administration knew that this was the morally right thing to do and they were speaking up for that, and I give them credit, particularly people who were saying this is the right thing from a foreign policy perspective.
On the other side were all of the political forces, and some of it was hardball politics. Who knows what was said? But [it’s likely there were expressions of] a concern that we need these pharmaceutical companies to do boosters for our nation, and we need them to continue to distribute to Americans and are they going to play hardball [when it comes to] doing what President Biden recognizes as the first priority, which is taking care of the American people?
That, I think, was really the intensity of the political pressure. For President Biden to make this decision, I think we ought to give him credit.
This president has done a lot of things that are more progressive than I thought we would see from him, which I’m glad about. But there are two places in particular where I would say he has shown tremendous courage: One, on Afghanistan, he has overruled his generals, literally the establishment. Two, on this TRIPS waiver, where he had to take on a lot of powerful economic interests.
JN: You were an especially outspoken advocate on this issue, but you weren’t alone. The push for the waiver was amplified by advocacy groups and members of Congress in the days before Biden moved on it.
RK: Yes. Let me tell you, when I was running for Congress, I would always make the case that representation matters. When I was running, there was no Indian American in Congress other than [California Democrat] Ami Bera. At the same time that I ran, [Illinois Democrat] Raja Krishnamoorthi was running, [Washington Democrat] Pramila Jayapal was running, and we all ran the campaign saying representation matters.
That to me was theoretical at that time. This was the first time I felt, “Wow, representation matters,” because when this [surge of Covid-19 cases in India] was taking place, Raja and myself and Pramila were on CNN, on the House floor, in touch with the administration to say, “We’ve got to do something,” not because we have any heightened moral sense, but because we were hearing it firsthand.
You know, as a member of Congress, you’re swamped. You’ve got a hundred different directions. But, on this, we were hearing it from constituent after constituent, how horrific it was, and I do think that voice made a difference.
JN: Are you satisfied with the administration’s response? With Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s response? Is there more that needs to be done?
RK: To the president’s credit, and to Secretary Blinken’s credit, they mobilized within a week. Their response on getting oxygen in was terrific. Their response on getting PPE in was terrific. Secretary Blinken was convening daily calls with all of these tech leaders seeing how we can mobilize our private sector. That was terrific. And then this TRIPS decision has been, like I said, courageous.
So they’ve done a lot right, and they’ve done a lot well, and I think it’s going to deepen the India-US relationship. This is India’s time of need, and President Biden and Blinken have been there for the country in a big way.
The only thing I think, going forward, that I’d like for them to continue to work on is helping with the global manufacturing capacity. The waiver is important, but unless we actually assist not just India but a hundred other countries with the manufacturing capability and the technical assistance, it’s not going to scale.
JN: You spoke a moment ago about representation mattering. You have family ties to India. You’ve spoken to me often about your grandfather’s legacy. Talk to me about your own sense of connection with India and how that influences you in this moment.
RK: It’s on a personal level in a very immediate sense. Just yesterday, a cousin of mine texted that my dad’s cousin had passed away. I hadn’t seen that person for 25 years, but it brought back a flood of memories of when I would visit India as a child and met him.
My aunts and cousins are still there. There’s still this sense that this is affecting a lot of people who were, at the very least, close to my parents, and people whom I had met.
Then there’s a deeper connection with my grandfather, because he really is the inspiration behind my desire to go into public service. He is someone who spent four years in jail in the 1940s in Gandhi’s “Quit India” movement, who becomes part of India’s first parliament, who is an advocate for human rights and an advocate for pluralism and an advocate for democracy and tolerance.
Those values are ones that helped shape me and shape the things that I believe are right and just. So that in part gives me a sense of wanting to see an India that is true to those Gandhian ideals—and obviously, that hasn’t been the case in a number of instances. But, more than that, it gives me a sense of wanting to always be proud of that spiritual foundation, as I continue my public service career.
I’ll end with this, because it’s on my mind. I was reading recently “The Composite Nation,” by Frederick Douglass. One of the things that I found so moving about [that speech] is that Douglass views America, at its best, as this rich composite of deep traditions and movements from around the world. I think that for me, the movement my grandfather was part of is something that I believe can enrich, as part of the contribution to, the American whole—what Douglass calls the “composite nation.”
It’s taken me a long time to get to that point personally, because I was so proud—I am so proud—of being American, so proud of all of the traditions. And yet to see that my heritage, my grandfather’s story, my ties to India, are additives to the American story, part of the American story, I think that’s part of what makes me able to make a unique contribution.