Monday, July 22, 2024

India— Sitting on the Fence? Not Really!

California – An independent-minded India is an enigma to the US and Russia alike. Rooted in non-alignment since its birth in 1947, India has had to tread a delicate path – steering its foreign policy between two power blocs – Russia and America, with China now added as the third prong of the trident.

India’s first Prime Minister, Jawarharlal Nehru, carved Indian foreign policy around mutual non-aggression and peaceful coexistence. Known as Panchsheel, this doctrine jointly endorsed by Nehru and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai later became the guiding spirit of the non-aligned movement.

Over time, while most other nations initially subscribing to the non-alignment moved on to join one camp or the other, India persisted – bravely mediating between and resisting stormy calls for putting its weight behind either. In this valiant effort, it deserves at the least the world’s polite applause, if not exuberant appreciation.

An infant democracy still in its 75th year, compared to the American now in its 246th year, India needs thoughtful consideration and compassionate understanding rather than hasty rejection solely based on the friend-enemy binary America typically applies to nations.

In a world that has seen one democracy after another collapse, India’s endeavor to remain democratic, especially given its size, complexity, diversity, and horrendous contrasts of wealth and poverty, makes it exceptional. Indeed, global security and American interests lie in desisting from unfairly demanding fealty of India based on the archaic notion of “You are either with or against us.” Instead, America should seek to bolster India as a steady bulwark against contra-democracy forces.

In global, as in family affairs, neutrality is highly challenging, if not impossible. Few nations can claim to have simultaneous relationships with countries as diametrically opposed as Russia and America, Israel and Iran. India has tried to pull off the miracle by resisting the traditional strictly bipolar and adopting a multipolar view of foreign affairs.

To reach that state of Nirvana, India had to go through a difficult gestation. It took years for its foreign office mandarins to move away from leaning into the Soviet Bloc – a policy that dominated India’s external relations and was actively pursued by successive Indian prime ministers.

In the 60s, the few politicians who dared or cared to favor America over Russia were decried as traitorous sell-outs and American cronies conspiring to undermine India’s sovereignty. One of those was Piloo Modi (no kin of current Prime Minister Modi), who hilariously attended Parliament wearing a badge that read, “I am a CIA Agent”!

With the rise of pro-capitalism political parties that were ideologically different from the socialistic Congress party, the latter’s dominance diminished. Even while initiating the Indian economy’s liberalization, Congress leaders nevertheless remained circumspect of openly aligning with the US. It fell to current Prime Minister Modi to woo Trump and capitalism while advocating alongside for a higher profile and “seat at the table” for India in the international arena – stances that possibly won him the popular mandate twice.

Modi inevitably has had to tread on hot coals to retain friendly relations with America while not divorcing Russia. Historical heavy reliance on Russian armaments and bilateral trade have been crucial incentives for India to refrain from poking the Bear. China’s growing power and its frequent implied or open threats to India’s sovereignty have accentuated India’s dependency on Russia.

Happily, unlike our loudmouth predecessors, current leaders have learned to keep their mouths shut. That explains how when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, India remained neutral. On January 31 this year, it abstained when the UN voted to discuss the Ukraine crisis, abstaining again for the fourth time when the big powers moved to censure Russia. Importantly, and with good cause if not in good faith, India chose to join China in keeping mum.

Reading the Chinese tea leaves, India continues to stay engaged discreetly but outside Russia and America’s exclusive sphere of influence. India’s sagacity and soft power are possibly enabling it to engage with both without exclusively committing to either.

China’s unambiguous actions to exert its overwhelming power threaten India’s territorial integrity and security interests. The closer China gets to claiming global paramountcy, the greater the urgency for India to get closer to the US, EU, as well as Russia and Asian nations – one reason why India has joined the Quad, which along with America, Australia, and Japan collectively seeks to checkmate an increasingly imperialist expansionist China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Russia’s current naked aggression against Ukraine has opened a can of worms. Entirely reprehensible, the invasion was hardly unpredicted. Russia has repeatedly warned against making Ukraine a NATO outpost, arguing it threatens Russia’s security. Dozens of Foreign policy and security experts, including George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, CIA Director Bill Burns, Bob Gates, Pat Buchanan, Jeffrey Sachs, have warned against NATO’s expansion into and weaponizing Ukraine.

There is logic behind them. Just as the Russian attempt to get Cuba to serve as Russia’s first line of defense against America was unacceptable to Kennedy, NATO’s move to use Ukraine as its first line of defense against Russia is unacceptable to Putin. Unbiased observers should be able to concede that if the 1823 Monroe Doctrine still prevails, making the Americas a no-interference zone for outside powers, that same principle validates Russia’s right to declare Ukraine a ‘hands off’ area to any other power.

As Ukraine’s future gets bleaker and its survival hangs in the balance, and Russian attacks on Ukraine’s civilians, especially refugees, turn lethal, the world is united in condemning Russia, with India likewise deeming those actions excessive. While abstaining from joining formal resolutions and strictures by UN Security Council, Atomic Energy Commission, and Human Rights/War Crimes groups against Russia, India has unequivocally decried the invasion.

Noting there is no other choice but to return to the path of diplomacy and dialogue, it has called for the immediate cessation of violence and end to hostilities, spoken to Russia requesting it to follow that path, and has welcomed the decision of Russia and Ukraine to do so. At the same time, it has acknowledged the valid security interests of Russia and the need for those concerns to be respected, causing Russia to commend India’s approach “as independent and balanced.”

While traditionally, America would have thrown a fit at India’s ‘abstinence’ and punished it for being a bad boy, it is heartening to see a ‘kinder gentler’ American approach to India. The Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, for instance, noted that the West has been trying to leverage India’s relations with Russia to enable a ceasefire. Within hours of India abstaining for the fourth time on a UN General Assembly vote on Ukraine, Senator Todd Young warned: “It would be foolish and deeply short-sighted for the United States to harm our relationship with India over what is occurring in Ukraine.” Other senators stressed India’s strategic importance to the US both on account of the size of India’s population and its economy.

To America – Mother of All Democracies – India’s unique significance must continue to lie in that it has effectively remained democratic for nearly 70 years, barring three dark periods when it functioned under an Emergency, two of which were declared to enable India to fight a war with China and Pakistan. Only the third was motivated by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s desperation to remain in power.

Though no suggestion is made here that India has a pristine record on ensuring civil liberties and human rights for minorities and dissidents, with the most glaring violations occurring in the border states and territories of Kashmir, Punjab, Meghalaya, etcetera, it makes sense to put these infringements in perspective. They occur mainly in response to perceived (or manufactured) external or internal security threats, failing law and order, or risk of the break-up of a country.

In resorting to such tactics, however, India is hardly an exception. Leaders of all regimes – democratic or autocratic, Chinese, Indian, Russian, American, or other – are all known to decry, suppress, and oppress dissidents to safeguard their own regimes but profess to do so under the false pretext of preserving the nation’s integrity.

Ironically, if one takes Russian claim at face value, Ukraine’s own record in suppressing dissent and punishing minorities is hardly rosy.

Today, even as we are systematically going after corrupt Russian leaders and oligarchs to weaken their war effort, it is ironic that Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy – rightly hailed as a hero for bravely resisting a powerful bully instead of fleeing for his life like the cowardly President of Afghanistan did within moments of America’s decision to exit – was named along with 37 other Ukrainians in the Pandora Papers – a global list of corrupt leaders hiding assets in shell companies.

From India’s perspective, Ukraine’s record of voting on matters of crucial importance to India is also sordid. In 1998, Ukraine supported a UN Resolution condemning nuclear tests conducted by India. Ukraine also voted in favor of UN interference in the Kashmir issue. Recently after India scrapped Article 370 of the Indian constitution that extended special status to Jammu and Kashmir, Ukraine went against India, in contrast to Russia, which described the move as India’s internal matter. In the past, the erstwhile Soviet Union vetoed several moves made against India in the UN Security Council on the Kashmir issue.

For Ukraine to now feel let down by India’s stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems unfair. Friendships are hardly one-way between nations, and diplomatic relations are guided exclusively by the ‘quid pro quo’ principle.

A tweet put out by the beating heart of an Indian and addressed to Ukraine says it best:
“You take consistent anti-India position at UN. You vote for UNSC sanctions against India after 1998 nuclear tests. You push for UN intervention on Kashmir after abrogation of Article 370. You sell military equipment to Pakistan to use against India. Yet you want India’s help.”

Author profile
Neera Kuckreja Sohoni

Neera Kuckreja Sohoni is a published author and opinion writer. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

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