India has no option but to join the West in ganging up on both China and Russia, and that this alone shapes Indian foreign policy
When Vladimir Putin first became Russian President in 2000 he said that he “cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilised world”. Had the West responded to him then, Ukraine might have been spared the horrors of a brutal invasion and India denied the pleasure of being courted by the European Union as well as the United States.
However, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit, that was held in Madrid following the G-7 meeting in the Bavarian Alps in Germany, underlined that despite this courtship, India can never be a full-fledged member of the Western alliance. Nato’s Madrid decision to identify Russia as Enemy Number One means that as under Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, Narendra Modi’s India is again destined to plough a lonely furrow.
Although trade talks with the European Union have been resumed after an eight-year break, the G-7’s resounding commitment to “open public debate, independent and pluralistic media…”, “freedom of expression and opinion online and offline and … a free and independent media landscape…” in the “2022 Resilient Democracies Statement” issued by members and their five special invitees (including India) seem irreconcilable with a chain of recent controversies culminating in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kashmiri photojournalist, Sana Irshad Mattoo, being prevented from travelling to France.
Meanwhile, New Delhi’s official spokesman accused the US state department of “practising vote bank politics in international relations” by criticising the alleged lack of religious freedom in this country.
These contradictions arise because of the West’s obsession with confronting Russia, containing China and retaining its global leadership without firing a shot or running out of oil. Driven by those aims, the EU and the US make as little effort as the late John Foster Dulles who thought non-alignment “immoral” to understand the powerful strategic, military, economic and diplomatic elements of the India-Russia relationship. The assumption is that smarting from humiliating reverses on the border, India has no option but to join the West in ganging up on both China and Russia, and that this alone shapes Indian foreign policy.
This simplistic view also overlooks that at one level and despite the lure of the Green Card, Indians find it difficult to exorcize the lingering bogey of the big bad imperialist West. Russia with its skill in courting Third World nations, its technological expertise and ability to play Father Christmas is a beneficiary of that ingrained anti-Western legacy.
As Chester Bowles, twice US ambassador to India, reported back many decades before any touch of saffron influenced national perceptions, Indians were hugely impressed by an East bloc nation that rivalled the West.
Even if memories of the US denial to Mr Modi of a diplomatic visa when he was chief minister of Gujarat, and the comments of various US officials on what the state department called “sectarian violence on a really massive scale”, plays no part in current thinking, guaranteed oil at a privileged price during a global shortage and assurances of continuing supplies of weapons and spares add to the attractiveness of a connection based on certain fundamental similarities.
When Mr Putin annexed Crimea in March 2014, articles in Rossiyskaya Gazeta and The Diplomat drew attention to the similarity with India’s absorption of the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim. I wonder how Owen Dixon, the Australian jurist and United Nations mediator in Jammu and Kashmir who called Maharaja Hari Singh’s disputed kingdom a miniature Austro-Hungarian empire, would have described India. India and Russia are both pluralist states that defy the Westphalian concepts of the nation-state with its exclusive sovereignty over its territory. Both can claim that for reasons of history and culture, their influence and even identity extends beyond their borders. To continue the parallel, Russia has the largest Muslim population in Europe: American sources claimed in 2017 that 14 million Russian Muslims constituted roughly 10 per cent of the total population. Islamist insurrections are not confined to the Chechen region. Moreover, not all the countries that were part of the old Soviet Union are today self-contained units that have made a smooth transition from dependence to independence. Most hosted — and some still do so — Russian military units that are regarded as crucial to the Russian Federation’s security.
Given this context, students of history might see the Nato strategic concept document highlighted in Madrid claiming that “the Russian Federation’s war of aggression against Ukraine has shattered peace and gravely altered our security environment” as a return to the Cold War rhetoric. Russia’s “brutal and unlawful invasion, repeated violations of international humanitarian law and heinous attacks and atrocities” may well “have caused unspeakable suffering and destruction”, but Moscow’s term for the invasion — “special military operation” — invites comparison with India’s own 1948 Operation Polo or Operation Vijay in 1961. Ranjit Gupta, Kolkata’s police commissioner in the 1970s, who was credited with suppressing the Naxalite movement, held that as an imperial creation, modern India could be held together only through imperial means.
It was said in the early 1990s that Mikhail Gorbachev was a better democrat than Abraham Lincoln since he allowed 14 Soviet republics to go their own way while Lincoln had fought a bitter and bloody civil war to prevent the 11 Confederate states from seceding from the Union. Times change, boundaries shift, yesterday’s enemies like France and Germany are today’s EU partners. The current joke doing the rounds concerns Mr Putin returning to earth from the special paradise for ex-Communists and ordering a vodka in a bar with a chatty barman. Is the Crimea Russian, he asked, and was assured that it was. The Donbas? Also Russian. And the Ukraine operation? “The Russians invaded”, said the barman. “Thousands of people were killed. The burials went on day and night.” Mr Putin wanted to know if the war continued. “No”, the barman replied. “It’s over. There’s complete peace now!”
Delighted that his conquest was complete, Mr Putin asked for his bill. “Five euros”, replied the barman.
Lord Robertson, Nato’s secretary-general, recalls the newly-elected Mr Putin asking: “When are you going to invite us to join Nato?” The secretary-general replied that countries were not invited, they applied to join. “Well, we’re not standing in line with a lot of countries that don’t matter”, Russia’s President retorted.
As noted already, some concession to his sensibilities might have saved Ukraine. It would also have avoided the quandary that Prime Minister Narendra Modi finds himself in today.