Narendra Modi still sees uses in not offending Vladimir Putin
DELHI IS A crowded place these days, but not from its crush of cars, auto-rickshaws and stray cows. Instead, India’s capital is flooded with visiting diplomats and statesmen, all vying for India’s love, or at least its attention. Recent top-level envoys have included, among others, the prime minister of Japan, the foreign ministers of China, Britain, Russia, Mexico, Greece, Oman and Austria, an American undersecretary of state and deputy national security adviser, and a senior adviser to the German chancellor.
During one of a seemingly endless series of press appearances Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s busy foreign minister, moaned that there appears to be “almost a campaign” to influence India. If so, this is largely his fault. The official Indian response to the great drama that currently preoccupies much of the world, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has been so cold and tight-lipped that it has left everyone wondering where the world’s largest democracy stands. The guessing game has at the same time raised Russian hopes of Indian support, Chinese hopes of wooing India from the clutches of America, Western hopes that India may dump its crotchety old friend Russia—and Western worries that a country they see as a natural ally couldn’t, in fact, give a fig about their high-falutin’ self-declared values, and is solely focused on a narrow notion of its own interests.
On every vote at the UN since Russia’s tanks rolled into Ukraine on February 24th, India has abstained. It has not condemned Russia by name. But nor has it shied from calling this a war rather than a “special operation”, as Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s deadpan foreign minister, gamely corrected an Indian journalist in Delhi on April 1st. Russia’s state-throttled media tries to paint India as a staunch cheerleader of Vladimir Putin, but struggles to find pukka Indians to parrot such tosh. And although India has annoyed those hoping to squash Russia with sanctions, by eagerly bargaining for discounted Russian oil and other goods, Mr Jaishankar points out that Western countries still buy heaps more Russian stuff than India ever has or will.
This prickly damn-them-all attitude is popular in India. In the polarised politics generated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) strident Hindu nationalism, giving the West a poke in the eye unites in delight both old leftists and young Hindutva hotheads. Mr Jaishankar was also not wrong when he told a perplexed-looking Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, that Indians care less about Ukraine than they do, say, about Afghanistan simply because of proximity. The subtle message was, first, that Ukraine is Europe’s problem and, second, that the West let India down by scuttling Afghanistan to the Taliban, so why should India be concerned now? India’s press and social media tom-tommed umbrage when Daleep Singh, America’s deputy national security adviser for economic affairs, suggested there might be “consequences” for undermining efforts to squeeze Russia. India will never bow to pressure, was the responding chorus.
While much of India’s establishment does cherish musty memories of cold-war “non-alignment”, when the Soviet Union backed the country against an American-supported Pakistan and a looming Chinese dragon, many also cite pragmatic contemporary reasons for staying off the West’s anti-Putin bandwagon. Most obviously, India depends on Russia for most of its arms. Perhaps 80% of its legacy systems are of Russian origin and, despite intensifying efforts to diversify, Russia remains a key supplier of new weapons and a vital source for maintenance and spares. Perhaps more crucially in the eyes of Indian generals, many of the country’s prestige military toys, such as nuclear-powered submarines and hypersonic cruise missiles, rely on Russian inputs.
It is not just nostalgia, either, that attaches Indian strategists to a clumsy fading power whose economy is now little more than half of India’s in size. Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution, an American think-tank, notes that India still sees Russia through the lens of its biggest long-term foreign-policy challenge, China. Delhi warmed to Moscow in the 1960s after the Soviet Union broke with Beijing. Indian security wonks still see Mr Putin’s Russia as a potential balance to what is not only an Asian superpower, but one with which India regularly spars over a long and dangerously undefined border. India fears that an isolated Russia will fall deeper into China’s embrace. At the same time, by declining to condemn Russia over Ukraine, India also wants to send a signal to China of its independence. The message is that for all its military footsie with the West, such as joining a “Quad” of China-wary powers along with America, Japan and Australia, carrying out joint naval exercises and mouthing mantras about a “rules-based order” and “free and open Indo-Pacific”, India is not a Western stooge.
All this posturing is fine, say Western diplomats, swallowing yet another snub on April 1st when Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, granted an audience to Mr Lavrov that he had pointedly denied to any of the other envoys (including China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, who visited Delhi on March 25th). Even the Americans accept that in a global energy crunch India may take some advantage of steep Russian discounts on its oil. They have already given Delhi a free pass for its recent purchase of an advanced Russian air-defence system—the sort of order that could trigger American laws requiring sanctions.
But although India may be right in thinking that it is too big and important a player for Western powers to forsake, Delhi’s narrow focus on “realpolitik” is not without costs. China’s “historic” claims on bits of Indian territory are not so different from Russia’s in Ukraine. Cocking a snook at your partners in the Quad serves only to prove Mr Wang, the Chinese foreign minister, acute in his argument that the grouping is no more substantial than “sea foam”. Clever as it may seem to use its closeness to Russia to its advantage in its contest with China, the erratic, bumbling and nasty Russia of Mr Putin, provider of costly weapons that don’t work too well, does not a reliable partner make. And at some point, particularly if Ukraine gets even messier, India’s own people might begin to take unwonted interest in foreign affairs. They might then ask, what kind of democracy are we anyway, if we can’t help fellow democracies in need?
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Sergei Lavrov and Narendra Modi