India’s mainstream media and social media are full of reports, commentaries and articles in praise of External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar’s replies to critical questions on the country’s positions on the war in Ukraine and several other foreign policy issues during his participation at Globsec 2022 Bratislava Forum, Slovakia.
There is no dispute that Jaishankar’s responses to questions were masterly. Any Indian listener would feel proud about what he said and the manner in which he said it. His replies and retorts reflected India’s current position in the world as an influential actor, constructive leader of the Global South and an independent major power.
But what is more significant is his role in public diplomacy and that is reaching out to the public abroad, who have been fed with certain kinds of ideas, impressions and selected facts about India and its foreign policy, to clearly explain to them what India stands for on international affairs and issues. Had the EAM interacted with his counterparts in Europe, it is fair to say that his words and approaches to issues would have been different. Possibly, his counterparts would not have raised questions in a manner done by the interviewer or journalists present in person or the virtual mode.
The major issues raised during the interview were India’s position on the Ukrainian war, especially not condemning the Russian invasion, Indian purchases of Russian oil despite Western sanctions, Indian decision to restrict the export of wheat in the midst of a global food crisis, and India’s foreign policy strategy in the wake of a bipolar world order represented by the United States and the People’s Republic of China.
It is quite understandable that the United States and its European allies have been lobbying hard through bilateral dialogues and even in international forums to make Indian policies aligned with the Western approaches to the Russia-Ukraine war. India is a strategic partner of the United States and a trade and investment partner of the European Union and is also a democratic polity, plural society and a market economy. Thus a strategic partner and an economic partner asking India to support their policy on a critical security challenge in Europe is not something that should surprise anyone.
However, India has taken certain positions that are not completely in tune with the Western policy of arming Ukraine, sanctioning Russia to cripple its economy and weaponising the financial systems, like SWIFT. India appears to have made the US and the European governments understand through its diplomatic dialogues and discussions the rationale behind its policies; and that explains why India’s relations with the strategic partners and economic partners have not been derailed.
Nonetheless, the popular perceptions among certain sections of the attentive public in the United States and Europe appeared as if India is a country that is siding with Russia, ignoring the deaths and destruction in Ukraine, bypassing the Western sanctions and funding Russia’s war in Ukraine by buying oil and indirectly helping Russian war efforts by refusing export of wheat despite the food crisis generated by the war-making it difficult for Ukrainian wheat to be put in the international market.
The questions that were raised at the time of the interview at Bratislava perfectly mirrored such misperceptions of Indian policy among the public. This is where the EAM, who not only has a professional diplomatic career but also holds a doctorate degree in international studies, flawlessly presented India’s views for the consumption of common people in the West.
His language and logic were polite yet assertive, simple but effective and at the same time politically correct and intellectually sound. He explained that India is not supporting war, India has condemned the Bucha killings, India has made efforts to convince Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian president Vladimir Putin to resolve differences through dialogue. He also said that India, like the European countries, has bought Russian oil to address its energy requirements amidst shortages in the market, India has restricted wheat exports to keep the speculators at bay and that like the American and European people, common people in India have also been suffering because of the war in Europe.
While the focus of the interview was on the Russia-Ukraine war, there was an attempt to corner him to take a definite stand in a scenario where a bipolar global power structure would emerge and whether India would be in the camp led by the US and Europe or in a bloc led by China and Russia. Jaishankar refused to view the world power structure in that mode and asserted that India would have its own way. A country where one-fifth of mankind lives and a country that ranks fifth or sixth among the economies in the world will have its own options and stay away from a fixed bloc.
Jaishankar hit the nail on the head without elaborating his points due to limited time. The fact remains that even in the present-day scenario marked by strategic divergences between the US and China, not many countries are in a position to take sides! A large number of American allies, including in Europe, look up to China for economic collaborations and up to the United States for security partnership! The world now and even in the future will be more complex and cannot be viewed in binary terms.
The writer is editor, ‘Indian Foreign Affairs Journal’, founder and Honorary Chairperson of Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies, and formerly professor of JNU. Views expressed are personal.