Taking stock of India’s policy on Ukraine war
A healthy scepticism of the pride-producing rhetoric directed against the West is also required
It has been over a year since Russia invaded Ukraine and heralded the unmistakable return of geopolitics to the centre stage of international affairs. A year is long enough to assess the effectiveness of India’s response to the invasion and the developments that have followed in its train. In a democracy, the government of the day is a trustee of the country’s foreign policy, responsible for securing the latter’s interests. How has New Delhi fared on this count?
First, on the core question of taking a position on Russia’s invasion, New Delhi has made India sit on the fence. It has condemned civilian killings in the war and told Moscow that war in our times is an anachronism. But it has not forthrightly criticised Russia for what is a clear case of great power military aggression and violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity — two fundamental principles of international order that India has traditionally upheld. Second, it has taken advantage of the closing of the western market for Russia to expand its bilateral trade, especially in fuel imports at discounted rates, although the Indian consumer has yet to fully experience the gains.
The third element in New Delhi’s response has two parts, and both have to do with shaping narrative. As a counter to western expectations that India take a clear stance on the invasion, New Delhi has doubled down on its criticism of the West. Many in India feel pride at New Delhi’s frequent use of sharp words that call out western hypocrisy and insularity. Perhaps stemming from a decision to use foreign policy to generate national pride, this tactic has served to deflect attention away from international criticism of the regime’s domestic policies. But wrapped within this stance is the view that the invasion and the war are the West’s problem. They are not. They centrally impinge on India’s core interests.
The other part of the narrative-shaping exercise has involved a quite dramatic resurgence of the Global South in New Delhi’s foreign policy discourse. Before the establishment warmed up to it last year, Global South was a term used in progressive academia to describe what during the Cold War period was called the Third World. It is an amorphous idea, not very substantive or coherent in terms of international politics. But it sounds good and is sufficiently vague for crafting narratives. Clubbed with India’s G20 presidency, the Global South idea has been used to generate the impression among citizenry that the big international issues of our times are sustainability, development and logistics, while geopolitics is a problem of the Global North.
Many in India see in New Delhi’s response an assertion of the traditional posture of non-alignment. Two of the goals of non-alignment were to enhance India’s security (or lessen its insecurity) and expand its strategic space. On both these scores, New Delhi’s policy has not yielded fruit. As illustrated by Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Russia, Beijing’s leverage over Moscow has considerably increased in a context where China remains aggressive on India’s frontiers while India remains dependent on Russian military hardware to meet its security requirements. The math on this does not favour India.
Further, it had also been argued that India’s effective neutrality was aimed at positioning itself as a credible mediator between Russia and Ukraine. This writer has previously argued that India is, alongside Turkey and China, best placed to mediate in the war. Turkey was involved from the beginning. But if New Delhi was hoping to play mediator, Beijing just jumped the queue with two high-profile visits of Chinese leaders to Moscow in recent weeks, presenting a Chinese perspective on a potential political settlement to the conflict. The Chinese heft on the issue is now acknowledged by the Europeans, as confirmed by New Delhi’s good friend, France’s Emmanuel Macron.
Whether these outcomes constitute reversals can be debated, but they point to New Delhi’s limited leverage with Russia relative to China, when it comes to producing results favourable to India’s strategy and security, as also enhancing its international prestige. They once again reveal that India does not yet have the power to shape the contours of emerging geopolitics decisively to its advantage.
It is reasonable to wonder if it was the awareness of this problem that led New Delhi to shift the popular gaze and craft the narrative that our real interests lie in the Global South and not in the geopolitical North. If so, then it is a stratagem to escape accountability, but it is important for citizens to take note that geopolitics matters and if New Delhi does not play its cards well, it will ill serve India’s interests.
A healthy scepticism of the pride-producing rhetoric directed against the West is also required. For the rhetoric may be eroding the work done since the late-1990s by Indian governments to improve relations with the only global force whose interests align with India’s when it comes to the emboldening revisionism of Russia and China.
Atul Mishra teaches international politics at the Shiv Nadar Institution of EminenceThe views expressed are personal