Indians are called argumentative. But it may be more accurate to say — we are opinionated. Someone could write a book on India with the title “a billion shades of opinion”. So, it is no surprise that all of us have a view on Ukraine-Russia, even those of us who are not geopolitical experts. And, we have good reason to be concerned, as the developments have the potential to upend our lives in multiple ways.
However, what is unique perhaps is the way domestic politics is shaping around it. While the world seems obsessed to dislodge Vladimir Putin, many in India are seeing it as another opportunity to corner Narendra Modi. So, if they can’t have a regime change in Russia, why not have a shot at in India, especially if BJP does not do well in the ongoing Assembly elections, seems to be the mood of the opposition.
Even as the conflict was brewing, one knew India would be on a delicate spot to take sides between Russia and the West. Russia has been an old, tried and tested ally though much has changed since the end of the Cold War and the rise of China. Post-9/11 the United States, in particular, realised the importance of co-opting India in its “war against terror”. But, it could not jettison Pakistan given its stakes in Afghanistan despite knowing that Islamabad was in polygamous relationships with the Taliban and several other terrorist organisations.
It was an open secret that Pakistan was the home of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, among others. But, it was an alliance of convenience that the US could not shake off immediately. However, the emergence of China increased India’s importance in the US’s scheme of things. With the formation of Quad and India’s more visible and vocal participation in G20 and other global fora our relationship with America began to warm up.
Though we had a long way from Nehru-Indira’s “Non-Alignment” that many thought was a euphemism for the Soviet Bloc, there was no reason for India to fall into the lap of the West. The international community began to recognise India was coming of age as a power to reckon whose importance would only grow over time. Therefore, it was imperative for us to retain the right to decide our own destiny as well as our voice. We needed to do what is good for India knowing well that it cannot make everyone happy at the same time.
Therefore, India’s stand on the Russia-Ukraine military escalation should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Even the United States accepted India’s position, albeit somewhat grudgingly. A few Western pundits of international relations sermonised on India’s folly without condemning others like China, UAE, Pakistan who had either abstained or voted against the resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Ukraine, of course, expressed its disappointment. But, it conveniently chose to forget its own stand against India on several occasions. However, throughout this period of crisis, at every opportunity, India called for resolution through dialogue while reiterating its concern about evacuations of Indian citizens stranded in the conflict zone.
One can argue with confidence that any other government in place of the present one would have acted pretty much in the same manner. In fact, a government led by the Congress would have found it more problematic to snap ties with Russia given its cosy ties with the Kremlin over several decades. In comparison, the Modi government was relatively unencumbered. The suggestion that India is constrained from censuring Russia because of defence contracts is exaggerated. India will be guided primarily by long term economic and geopolitical considerations. The rest is all diplomatese and icing on the cake.
Perhaps understanding this at a subliminal level the Opposition has decided to train its guns at the evacuation efforts of the government — specifically “Operation Ganga”.
My heart goes out to the Indian students suffering such violence and their family watching these videos. No parent should go through this.
GOI must urgently share the detailed evacuation plan with those stranded as well as their families.
We can’t abandon our own people. pic.twitter.com/MVzOPWIm8D
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) February 28, 2022
This is not the time to blame the students for not heeding warnings by the Indian Embassy to leave Ukraine before fighting broke out. As a nation our first responsibility is to get the children out of the trouble zone. The challenge of carrying out such a war-time rescue effort cannot be understated. However, instead of standing in solidarity with the government to boost the morale of the Indian students and citizens caught in the crossfire, the Opposition has mounted a campaign of criticism — the collateral consequence of which would be raising panic among those who are stranded and their families back home. So much so, a foreign Ambassador had to contradict the tweet of an Opposition MP.
Madam, this is absolutely not true. Polish government did not deny anyone to enter from the border with Ukraine.
Please check your sources.
Please do not spread #FakeNews
— Adam Burakowski (@Adam_Burakowski) February 28, 2022
Besides, as former prime minister HD Deve Gowda pointed out it could demoralise those engaged in the frontline of the mission to ensure safe passage of our people.
I have been watching videos of our young citizens stranded in Ukraine making fervent pleas for evacuation. It is heart wrenching to see their plight. I can understand their desperation to get back home safely. But when a war is raging in that country and there is so much 1/3
— H D Devegowda (@H_D_Devegowda) February 28, 2022
The comments have been from the ridiculous to the abstruse. One Congress spokesperson tweeted, the government is paying a price for the sale of Air India.
THIS IS THE REASON WHY WE SHOULD NOT HAVE SOLD OFF OUR NATIONAL CARRIER! In previous governments, our stranded Indians were rescued by Air India. Here charges were lakhs leaving thousands of Indians students STRANDED in #Ukraine !#UkraineRussia war#UkraineRussiaCrisis
— Tehseen Poonawalla Official 🇮🇳 (@tehseenp) February 25, 2022
It is hard to believe anyone would like to retain a loss-making enterprise that was bleeding the exchequer Rs 20 crore per day for such contingencies. At the other extreme, some have suggested that the name “Operation Ganga” was chosen in the light of the ongoing Assembly elections as it would resonate with BJP voters. Not to be left behind sections of the media also echoed this line of thinking.
'There was a gap in BJP’s UP campaign. Putin filled it'
— Shekhar Gupta (@ShekharGupta) February 28, 2022
Some commentators drew false equivalence between the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and neighbouring countries of Ukraine offering shelter to refugees. This was disingenuous because India never let CAA come in the way for non-Hindu or Sikh refugees from Afghanistan except on the rights of citizenship. The Modi government is often accused of going overboard on public relations. There may be some truth in that. Conversely it can be said that the government receives little credit for its actions. The announcement about India’s offer to fly back citizens of neighbouring countries received no commendation from either the press or politicians.
Guided by India’s motto of the world being one family, PM @narendramodi stated that India will help people from neighbouring countries and developing countries who are stranded in Ukraine and may seek assistance.
— Arindam Bagchi (@MEAIndia) February 28, 2022
Instead, the prime minister was chided for electioneering while students were stuck in Ukraine.
— NDTV News feed (@ndtvfeed) February 25, 2022
For example, the wisdom of the decision to depute senior ministers to neighbouring countries of Ukraine to oversee Operation Ganga may be debatable. Sometimes the presence of VVIPs becomes a distraction during a crisis. But, to ridicule it as a “photo op” is unwarranted. Similarly, comments were made about ministers receiving returning students at airports. The students were looking dazed, which was understandable after the trauma they had gone through. This little gesture is likely to go a long way and should not have been ridiculed if only for their sake. While I write this, there is the tragic news of an Indian student who died during shelling in Kharkiv. Without losing any time Rahul Gandhi has tweeted saying the government needs to have a “strategic plan”.
Received the tragic news of an Indian student Naveen losing his life in Ukraine.
My heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.
I reiterate, GOI needs a strategic plan for safe evacuation.
Every minute is precious.
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) March 1, 2022
It is such petulant comments that make the prime minister release clips of his high-level review meetings to scotch misinformation. It may be a good idea for the prime minister to call Opposition leaders to brief them about the government’s policy and plan of action while seeking their advice on the evolving situation. Given its previous experience during Pulwama, Doklam, Galwan etc., as indeed Kargil and the IC 814 hijack episode during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s term, Modi may be cynical about such an outreach. However, there is nothing to lose in trying except for the bluster of his habitual critics.
The author is a current affairs commentator, marketer, blogger and leadership coach, who tweets at @SandipGhose. Views expressed are personal.