1971: When Delhi and Moscow came together
On August 9, 1971, the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was signed in New Delhi by the foreign ministers of both countries, Swaran Singh and Andrei Gromyko. The treaty was probably the most seminal foreign policy arrangement entered into by India in the 20th century. It undoubtedly had the most profound effect on the politics and geography of South Asia, cementing what many thought was the pre-eminence of India in the region.
Given the tensions over East Pakistan in 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh by the end of that year, it is not surprising that many believe that India was primarily driven to sign the treaty by this crisis. But that is a superficial picture, countered through some superb research by Srinath Raghavan in his book 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh. When supplemented with a reading of the relevant portions of Jairam Ramesh’s excellent book, Intertwined Lives: PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi, it should provide a comprehensive understanding of how the treaty came to be signed.
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As Raghavan notes: “The treaty was not the product of a strategic consensus between India and the Soviet Union on the crisis in South Asia. For New Delhi and Moscow sought rather different objectives in concluding the treaty.” Discussions on the treaty had started a couple of years before it was signed, in 1969 to be precise. A draft was quickly agreed upon once India’s concerns about maintaining its non-alignment and omitting any explicit references to military cooperation were accommodated. In fact, according to Raghavan, the Indian draft of the treaty did not significantly differ from the Russian version.
However, the then Prime Minister (PM), Indira Gandhi, while positive about the treaty, was hesitant to sign it too quickly. She was worried about internal political opposition to the treaty as well as possible negative reactions abroad, primarily in the United States (US) and China. The fact that she got embroiled in a conflict with the Congress party leadership in 1969, and elections were held subsequently, helped postpone the signing.
Even in the middle of the East Pakistan crisis, Indira Gandhi remained ambivalent about signing the document. But then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China (via Pakistan) in July 1971, and his subsequent conversation with the Indian ambassador to the US, LK Jha, on July 17 tipped the balance. Kissinger told Jha that the US would not get involved if China intervened in a war between India and Pakistan.
Alarm bells rang in Delhi. PM Gandhi shed her hesitations and authorised Indian officials to proceed with the treaty. Thus, the treaty was signed on August 9, exactly one month after Kissinger’s Beijing visit.
Expectedly, it was duly castigated by most Indian political parties, barring probably only the pro-Moscow Communist Party of India, then led by SA Dange. The then Jana Sangh leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for instance, called it “a Soviet stab in the Indian back”. The treaty was roundly — and expectedly — criticised by most Western states.
A study of publicly available material makes it abundantly clear that Russia’s prime motivation in seeking the treaty with India was China and the same was true for India. The Soviets proposed the treaty soon after the eruption of their Ussuri river border clashes with China in March 1969. The draft was, barring some minor later changes, ready by September/October 1970, long before the East Pakistan crisis erupted in March 1971.
In a way, Bangladesh was a collateral beneficiary of the treaty because it prevented external great power interference in the East Pakistan crisis.
Fifty years later, the world has changed dramatically. The Soviet Union no longer exists. China is not a weaker adversary of Russia seeking to ride on US coat tails — indeed, it is quite the opposite. India and South Asia have evolved significantly. The US, still the pre-eminent world power, is now locked in competition with China, which doesn’t seek to hide its muscles anymore and aggressively projects and displays power. India and Russia — the successor to the Soviet Union — are moving in apparently different orbits.
But the more some things change, the more others stay the same. India is still concerned with China — this time with its belligerent rise. In response, India is moving closer to the US. However, Russia is moving closer to China trying to counter a belligerent US.
This undoubtedly introduces significant tensions in the Indo-Russian relationship. But neither India nor Russia wants to be a junior partner to any other power yet. Both recognise that to stay relevant in a world that could slowly move towards bipolarity, they will need to keep their ties strong and build independently strong relationships with other middle powers.
Building stronger ties requires identifying areas of convergence and prioritising them over the divergences. Strong, even if limited, ties require buy-in from political, bureaucratic, military, business, cultural and intellectual elites. This would hugely assist the efforts of both countries to move towards becoming knowledge economies, prepared for the rest of the 21st century and beyond.
But, like anywhere else in the world, there are conflicting views within the elites. Currently, the more vocal elites in both countries are those that would like to see India and Russia drift apart from each other. Fortunately, so far, these voices do not accurately reflect the elite equations at the decision-making level.
The strategic convergence of 1971 continues to have abiding lessons, 50 years later.
Nandan Unnikrishnan is distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation
The views expressed are personal