Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not called out Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but not because he wants to help broker a peace. Rather he only has domestic concerns in mind.
NEW DELHI — India is standing at a crossroads when it comes to the war in Ukraine. Unlike Israel and Turkey, who are trying to use their relatively tame responses to Russia’s invasion to provide space for negotiating peace, India has not attempted any initiative to carve out a global role for itself in what is already the worst crisis in Europe since World War II. While New Delhi has called for a ceasefire and dialogue, it has done nothing to bring it about.
Further muddying this picture of diplomatic paralysis s this perverse impression that the invasion of Europe’s second-largest country by its largest country is somehow a standoff between Russia and the United States. And Indian sympathies, it seems, lie with Russia for the sake of their shared history. But which history is India looking at?
It all depends on where you look. The Soviet veto undoubtedly sheltered India over Kashmir when it was used in 1957 and 1962; the subsequent implied threat of its use also kept Kashmir off the agenda of the Security Council. By 1991, when Moscow informed New Delhi that it would no longer be able to offer the same sort of cover at the UN, the appetite of the other permanent members to tackle Kashmir had waned considerably and India had largely succeeded in its insistence that its differences with Pakistan were a bilateral issue.
However, the Soviet Union was less reliable over China. When the Chinese marched into India in 1962, not only did Moscow not respond to calls for help, citing its preoccupation with the Cuban Missile Crisis; it warned India that if New Delhi raised the issue at the Security Council, Soviet support would go to China. Moscow had also earlier suspended the sale of aircraft to India in a show of neutrality between the two.
Nehru and Kennedy
The help that India sought came from the United States. Even though U.S. President John F Kennedy was equally preoccupied with events in Cuba, he convened a presidential meeting to discuss the two letters that his Indian counterpart Jawaharlal Nehru sent him on November 19, 1962.
Nehru had sought arms, American-manned fighter jets and military help that virtually amounted to an alliance. Though the United States did not intervene militarily, it air-dropped arms, ammunition and extreme weather kits for soldiers who had been sent to fight in the Himalayas in canvas shoes and cotton uniforms.
Kennedy also considered sending the USS Kitty Hawk of the Seventh Fleet to the Indian Ocean, but the Chinese declared a cease-fire before the ship left its area of operations in the Pacific. It is, therefore, ironic that the Seventh Fleet is best remembered in India for the USS Enterprise, which Richard Nixon sent to the Indian Ocean during the 1971 war for reasons that are still being debatedtoday.
Defense support beyond Moscow
The Army’s current dependence on Russia runs from battle tanks to bullets, but even there the picture is nuanced. India imported 70,000 AK 203 assault rifles from Russia in 2021, with an agreement for the licensed production of a further 600,000; in 2019, India imported 72,000 Sig 716 assaults rifles from the United States. A year later, with the India-China border heating up, it ordered a further 72,000.
That India needs to import small arms at all, 75 years after independence, points to the failure of its attempts to produce arms domestically, with the Army reportedly unenthusiastic about Indian kit ranging from tanks to carbines.
Overshadowing these figures is the marked decline in Russian dependence. Even though Moscow is still India’s largest defense supplier, imports from Russia fell from 69% from 2012-2017 to 46% from 2017-2021. Russia’s loss was France (18.4%), Israel (13.4%) and America’s (11%) gain.
From virtually nothing in 2008, India’s defense imports from the U.S. now stand at $20 billion. Underpinning this deepening of defense ties are four ‘foundational’ agreements between India and Washington that govern intelligence sharing, interoperability and access to military technology. If allowed to reach their full potential, these agreements could transform relations between New Delhi and Washington DC, making the Delhi-Washington relationship a remarkable exception to America’s alliance-bound partnerships.
File photo of joint U.S.-India air force exercises with USS Kitty Hawk
However, Delhi’s rebuffing of American calls to condemn Russia over its invasion of Ukraine indicates that that potential remains a distant goal. This dissonance recalls a recurrent theme of missed opportunities in the relationship between the two; one that might again have long-lasting consequences for India’s global ambitions.
History indicates that while militarily mismatched, India and the United States are perfectly balanced in commerce; in their shared preachiness, prickliness and hypocrisy. What the relationship gives in defense, it takes away in trade; in disputes over intellectual property, visas and in international diplomacy.
These differences matter to the Indian middle class and, therefore, to the politicians who need their votes. And this, perhaps, offers the key to India’s stance on Russia’s invasion.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs (foreign ministry) might simply have dropped the ball on Ukraine. Not since Nehru has India’s diplomatic corps been so overshadowed by the prime minister — with foreign relations increasingly reduced to the prime minister’s interactions with world leaders.
Focused on votes
Over the eight years of Modi’s premiership, the Ministry has been increasingly pulled into playing a supporting role, even at the cost of bolstering the prime minister’s domestic agenda of keeping his party in power. The Ukraine crisis boiled over as five states, including Uttar Pradesh, were preparing for elections.
India’s foreign ministry insisted that its main focus was the evacuation of the almost 20,000 Indian students in Ukraine. Many of those were from Uttar Pradesh and their subsequent ‘debt’ to the government found mention in election rallies. As the results in Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur show, these calculations appear to have paid off. A global crisis was slotted into the business of winning the next election.
Nehru had observed in 1946 that “India, constituted as she is, cannot play a secondary part in the world. She will either count for a great deal or not count at all.” In his view, India’s history, her variety, her unruliness and her great inequalities gave her the right to seek a global role in which all could rise together.
The current prime minister sees global politics as the backdrop for him and his Bharatiya Janata Party’s domestic ambitions. If the invasion of Ukraine becomes a footnote in the story of a new India, 75 years after independence, India’s global horizons have truly shrunk.
Priyanjali Malik is an independent researcher who primarily focuses on security and politics in the Indian subcontinent, especially nuclear politics
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