Moscow’s sudden discovery of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s greatness and rooting for Pakistan has given India a big diplomatic headache amid Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to America.
Modi landed in New York earlier this week. The PM’s itinerary includes three meetings with President Joe Biden in three days that he will spend in the United States.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov completely stumped New Delhi by singing paeans in praise of Jinnah -- a hate figure in the BJP-RSS ecosystem for slicing British India and carving out Pakistan -- while courting Islamabad last week. Importantly, the Kremlin’s top diplomat also raised a slogan in Urdu -- Pakistan-Roosi Dosti Zindabad, or Long live Pakistan-Russia Friendship!
South Block and the Prime Minister’s Office were naturally unprepared for all this after backing Russia to the hilt against the US-led West over Ukraine. The least India expected from Moscow was to be mindful of its sensitivities about Pakistan. It’s natural for India to feel let down by its closest ally
New Delhi is contending with Moscow’s Pakistan card at a time when all its time and energy ought to have been focussed on making Modi’s America visit a grand success. The distraction has put Indian diplomacy in an uncomfortable position.
Russia's Clean Chit to Pakistan
Modi’s ongoing US visit, billed as a “milestone” by Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra, is obviously not to Moscow’s liking. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is especially perturbed by the long defence shopping list Modi is carrying in his trouser pocket to ensure that he is accorded the highest protocol and a red carpet welcome in Washington, where the President is also a salesman of the US arms, aviation and energy industries.
The trigger for Lavrov’s glorification of Jinnah and incantation of dosti with Islamabad is obvious. But the problem is that Lavrov’s clean chit to Pakistan has knocked the bottom out of New Delhi’s persistent claims that its western neighbour is a “failed” and “isolated” state specialising in “exporting terror” – after all, the world power India relies upon most has just endorsed Pakistan and given it a glowing character certificate.
What motivated Lavrov is irrelevant for us. What is important is that his over-the-top advocacy for Pakistan has left our Pakistan narrative with no legs to stand on. Next time we point a finger at Pakistan, it will tell us: “Ask your friend, Russia.”
Remarks favouring Pakistan by the most senior diplomat of the country we turn to during all crises and adversities and which is moreover our biggest weapons’ supplier, are so embarrassing that they were blacked out by leading newspapers to shield the Modi government which has invested so much in Russia and has such high expectations from it.
The media spared India’s blushes and the External Affairs Ministry too remained tight-lipped. But National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, responded in his own way to Russia’s needling and pressure tactics. He sent Russia a blunt message by having a long telephonic conversation with Head of the Ukrainian President's Office, Andriy Yermak, immediately after Lavrov paid Pakistan compliments. It was a bit like paying Russia back in its own coin but Doval wanted to keep it low key.
'Discipline Formulated by... Jinnah'
That’s why New Delhi did not issue a press release. But Kiev, which has its own scores to settle with Moscow, did! The pro-Government Economic Times reported that “there was no word from the Indian side about the telephone call”, revealing that India didn’t want to publicise the Doval-Yermak talks but Ukraine spilled the beans to achieve its own objective.
The 75th anniversary of the establishment of Pakistan-Russia diplomatic relations fell on 12 June. And the wily Lavrov seized it with both hands to embrace Islamabad to spite New Delhi where hectic preparations were underway for Modi’s US visit. He raised a toast to Russia-Pakistan friendship with a slogan in Urdu and singled out Jinnah -- considered a Muslim villain by BJP-RSS – for praise to needle the Modi government.
Lavrov proclaimed: “I would like to note that Russia's vision of the world order and our understanding of traditional moral values are in harmony with the principles of faith, unity and discipline formulated by the father of the Pakistani people Muhammad Ali Jinnah.” The sole reason for paying obeisance to Jinnah was to annoy and offend the Modi regime and distract it from preparations for the PM’s US visit.
Importantly, Lavrov did not stop at that. He openly declared Russia’s interests in deepening security, political and economic relations with Pakistan. But the unkindest cut was hailing Pakistan as “a key international partner in the joint efforts to combat common security challenges and threats, including trans-border crime and terrorism”. It directly contradicted India’s stand that Pakistan exports terrorism to India but pretends to be a victim of terrorism to evade global criticism of its terrorist infrastructure.
After treating Pakistan as a pariah state for a very long time, Russia started warming up to Pakistan after the India-US civil nuclear energy agreement in 2008. Gradually Islamabad and Moscow have signed defence cooperation agreements and conducted joint military drills causing heartburn in India. But Lavrov’s latest shenanigans, particularly its timing, expose new cracks in Moscow-New Delhi relationship which can’t be easily papered over.
(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)