By taking on Western Europe for the patronising advice over India’s Russia equations in the light of the Ukraine war, that too after ticking off their trans-Atlantic American counterparts on the same issue, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is emerging as the masculine face of diplomatic India on the global stage. This does not necessarily mean that India has arrived on the global stage full steam. Instead, it implies that New Delhi has conveyed, for the first time after the Bangladesh War (1971), that it’s no global push-over as our post-Cold War Western friends had determined thus far.
There is a difference. Bangladesh was a stand-alone affair and India (read: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi) was clear about the inherent limitations, be it economy or politics, or more so military self-sufficiency. Her mission goals and deadlines for Gen Sam Manekshaw indicated her full understanding of the prevailing limitations. Being friends of the erstwhile Soviet Union meant that we were getting weapons, not for free. It still made the nation dependent on an outsider, who could pull the plug if it did not serve, rather sub-serve, its geo-strategic interests. Yeltsin’s Russia, post-Cold War, exposed some of those limitations over the cryogenic engine row.
Today, significant utterances, especially by EAM Jaishankar, may have added to the nation’s heft, yes. But New Delhi would not have lost sight of the ground reality. For the West, which wants India on their side, it’s a trade-off. So is it for India, or that is what Jaishankar has conveyed since the commencement of the Ukraine War. New Delhi has spoken clearly that it is in India’s ‘supreme self-interest’ to do business with Russia. ‘Self-interest’ is the philosophy on which the US foreign policy has revolved, all along. In the 21st century American coinage, ‘liberal democracy’ is international diplomatic tool for the West to brand or woo nations. Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq are bitter examples. This time round, India has stood its ground. Full-stop.
Combination of values
“When the rules-based order was under challenge in Asia, the advice we got from Europe was ‘do more trade’,” Jaishankar said, without naming China, at the annual Raisina Dialogue. India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), which Jaishankar presides over as minister and where he spent all his career years, is a partner in the region’s all-important geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic discourse. “At least we’re not giving you that advice,” he quipped as if a concession. “In terms of Afghanistan, please show me which part of the rules-based order justified what the world did there,” he said while interacting with some European ministers and diplomats at the annual event in New Delhi.
In sheer frustration bordering on boredom owing to repetitiveness just over, weeks on the global impact of the Ukraine War, Jaishankar said, “…we have been hearing… a lot of argument from Europe that things happening in Europe should worry (us) because these could happen in Asia… Things have been happening in Asia for the last ten years. Europe may not have looked at it... So, you know, it could be a wake-up call for Europe, not just in Europe, but it could be a wake-up call for Europe to also look at Asia.”
Jaishankar enunciated that “different countries have evolved a combination of values, interests, history, experience and culture to approach conflicts and specific situations. So, you spoke about Ukraine. I remember less than a year ago what happened in Afghanistan, where an entire civil society was thrown under the bus by the world. Or we in Asia, face our own threats or challenges, which often impacts on the rules-based order.”
The unsaid reference was the US irresponsibility in withdrawing from Afghanistan at short-notice, and its European NATO allies’ stoic silence in the matter.
He pointed out that in this region, “boundaries have not been settled, terrorism is practiced, often sponsored by states,” and the “rules-based order has been under continuous stress for more than a decade”. Europe’s invocation for global unity in protecting the rules-based order in the wake of the Russian invasion in Ukraine is selective, with no such visible outrage when Afghanistan was “thrown under the bus”, the EAM pointed out to an international audience.
India resisted calls for endorsing the US-led alliance in Afghanistan and the Vajpayee government, after a momentarily dilly-dallying, rejected calls for Indian boots on Afghan soil. It is not India’s concern as it has laid out its Ukraine War policy in clear terms. But the larger question now is about any US decision over Ukraine that tantamount to Afghan withdrawal and its impact, especially who now take the Americans on their word.
We are here, we too are here
New Delhi is well aware that European geo-strategic concerns are not centred on China as much as is for Americans. For them, trade and investments mattered the most, pre-Ukraine War, and China was a good partner. It will remain so unless China enters the Ukraine War and on Russia’s side. The question will still remain if in terms of trade and economy, they would be able to shun two of their major suppliers/trading partners, one of them also helping to keep their homes and hearths warm in winter.
Today, the shoe pinches, Europe and also the US are shouting, ‘Help, help’. But in their own sophisticated way, they have sought to turn the tables on ‘recalcitrant friends’, who used to be obedient colonies, not until very long ago. Jaishankar’s harangue over the past months in particular is a well-timed reminder for the West that India at least had shed the centuries-old past behind, and for good reasons and justification.
Going beyond mere words and the sentiments they expressed, Jaishankar’s is an exposition of 21st century India’s arrival statement, that ‘we are here, we too are here’. It is as ambitious as it is bold. Yet, converting that ambition to credible and sustainable action, which alone can make India as a serious player on the emerging global scene, is not as easy as is being made out to be. For instance, India has to become self-sufficient in as many sectors as possible, especially in matters of multiple technologies, including pharma, and more so, in military hardware, both knowhow and manufacture.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘atmanirbhar’ sounds as empowering as the much-ridiculed ‘self-sufficiency slogan of the predecessor Congress governments, starting with that of Jawaharlal Nehru. But in reality, it remains the old game of making in India, equipment based on foreign technologies, or what industrialised nations are willing to share. There of course will be lots of checks and balances in terms of dual-use technologies, non-transferability, etc, but that is what they cloud under the cover of ‘intellectual property rights’, no offence meant.
That is to say, the 21st century India is only rediscovering the forgotten 20th century India in matters of self-sufficiency in high-end technology-related manufacturing, just as it is even more keen on rediscovering the contemporary generation’s cultural roots, with an interpretation and application for the present — as with yoga and Ayurveda. But the way the two goals are pursued, they come with a baggage, with potential for both intertwining at a point and time inconvenient to India.
Yet, India is also alive and should be even more about Russia and China coming closer in the light of European events and developments centred on Ukraine, among other things, with possibilities for Moscow’s New Delhi relations, especially in geo-politics and geo-strategic terms. “We are cognisant of the rapidly changing international relations, including between Russia and China,,” outgoing Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said on the eve of his retirement. It is also an additional and more direct point that the West has been stressing with India, since the outbreak of the Ukraine War. Shringla was re-assuring when he said, “We… assess them from our perspective so as to fashion our policy response.”
Jaishankar’s recent utterances are also an arrival statement for the self as the nation’s new-generation foreign policy czar. Before him, only Jawaharlal Nehru as his own foreign minister had made clear-cut foreign policy statements of the kind, cutting across regions and seasons, until, of course, the Chinese debacle of 1962. Nehru’s was an exposition of non-alignment from a position of inevitable national weakness. Jaishankar’s is one from a position of possible strengths, in geo-political and geo-economic terms. Rather, it seeks to exploit the Western exposition in the matter, and the West has restrained for underlining India’s inherent and existing weaknesses in multiple sectors. To ‘em all, India is a growing market still, and will remain so for some more years/decades to come.
Jaishankar’s kind of tough posturing is balanced — not a one-size-fits-all approach. For instance, New Delhi is tough on Russia’s human rights violations in Ukraine as far as it is convinced, but is tougher on the West for asking India to abide by their unilateral sanctions on Moscow, whose aim is to keep the war contained to Ukraine and to secure their economies and peoples.
For the West, starting with the US, displaying their democratic decorations viz communist Russia or China suits them. Even here the latter is the eternal bug-bear only of the US, not of Western Europe, which does not have as many geostrategic ambitions and urge for containment of the other as the US. Maybe, the unanticipated Ukraine War might have upset their carefully calibrated move towards the centre stage, if only over decades.
In their calculations, democracy has become the universal tipping-point, to emotionally subdue what they consider to be ‘cat-on-the-wall’ nations like India. It worked for them during the two Iraq Wars, and they are trying it again now. But India has changed. Still, it remains reactive and not proactive, for it to feel super-confident and its people proud of the nation more than ever — again, after the ‘Bangladesh War’, and Pokhran I and II. One slip-up, and down could go the vision and mission — and also the perceived proponent, a scapegoat or a sacrificial lamb at the altar of the nation’s geo-strategic expediency of that moment. National and global history are full of them.
With me, against me
It is too simplistic to assume that India and the US can do business on commonalities, keeping bilateral irritants aside. Good intentions often do not pay. It did not pay whenever New Delhi tried to do business similarly with Pakistan or China, by mutually deciding not to rake up the contentious and complicated border dispute, especially with the latter, until such time mutual trust had been built up enough.
In the case of the US and the rest of the West, the reverse will be the experience, over time. It is how the US chose to lose (?) India to the Soviet Union at the commencement of the Cold War. The dictum was simple and straight: ‘If you are not with me, you are against me’. This attitudinal approach has not changed.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has acknowledged as much at a recent Congressional hearing but added that ‘Russia, for India, was out of necessity a partner of choice when we were not in a position to be a partner’. He did not elaborate the compelling reason for India-US relationship not taking off during early Cold War years other than the assiduously-practised McCarthyism, which branded perceived ‘fellow-travellers of communism’ (Russia) as one that needed to be discouraged in the international arena.
In the present scenario, for instance, successive US administrations may keep all human rights reports on India piled up in some godforsaken basement chamber, in whichever Washington building they want — nut won’t act on them as long as they think that they want India on their side and are also hopeful that the day is round the corner. They would pull it out, not when there is enough of dossiers, but when they feel that India might have travelled too far, to be able to pull back and/or had to be put in its place on a future date.
The reasoning may have nothing to do with ground realities in India — where there is much to be desired, yes — but would owe to certain all-American perceptions, at times though not always linked to their religious beliefs, especially in an election year. But they all would be couched in secularist sophism.
The writer is a policy analyst and commentator, based in Chennai. Views expressed are personal.