The gracious Austrian capital Vienna – once the principal seat of the Holy Roman Empire and later of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – and especially his attending the New Year’s Concert of the famous Vienna Philharmonic Concert with his Austrian counterpart Alexander Shallenberg would have soothed the minister’s spirits at the beginning of what would be a busy and trying year for Indian diplomacy.
This was the first time an Indian Minister of External Affairs was visiting Austria in 27 years. Jaishankar also got an opportunity to meet his counterparts from the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the Slavkov 3 format.
Russia-Ukraine War & India-Austria Ties
There is little doubt that Austria wishes to upgrade its ties, especially in the economic and commercial sectors with India. It also wants to ensure that India is willing to take back the increasing number of its nationals who are illegally trying to find their way into this Central European country.
While these are bilateral matters, what the Austrians like other European countries really want from India at this stage is to intervene with Russia to wind up the Ukraine war.
In this context, Schallenberg’s comments at the joint press conference after his talks with Jaishankar on 2 January were significant. He said that it was a "good sign” that India "now holds the G20 Presidency”. He also added, "And yes, we have high expectations. We count on India."
He did not say exactly what is expected of India. However, his full remarks, including that India was "a voice of peace, a voice of reason” and had a tradition of "balancing” between great powers, clearly indicate that he, like other European leaders, wants India to become actively involved in at least facilitating a process of Russia and Ukraine talks.
Impact of Modi’s SCO Remark & India’s Role in Mediating Talks Between Russia-Ukraine
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has rightly urged both Russia and Ukraine to proceed on the path of diplomacy and negotiations. His open and widely reported remark to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand in September, on the margins of the SCO meeting, that "I know that today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about this,” was hailed by Western leaders even as the Russians stoically absorbed it and did not respond negatively.
Recently, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke to Modi to urge that he should press Russia to accept his 10-point peace plan to end the war.
The fact though is that neither Russia nor Ukraine nor their supporters are currently fully committed to the path of diplomacy to end the Ukraine conflict. Besides, with Putin’s amalgamation of Ukrainian territories into Russia, the situation seems diplomatically intractable.
In such a situation it would be best for India to keep articulating the need for diplomacy and dialogue but avoid getting involved in any facilitation exercise between the parties, leave alone, mediation.
As the year rolls on and as the G20 summit scheduled to be held in early September in Delhi comes closer, India will hear more and more of the kind of good words used by Schellenberg about India’s “strong, multilateral weight”.
These are blandishments which have to be simply ignored.
India’s G20 Presidency & Addressing Concerns of the Global South
In Jaishankar’s presence, Schallenberg also said that while the Ukraine war was taking place on “European soil", it was “by no way a European war because you are sensing [its] repercussions and millions of people around the world are suffering."
It is true that the food, energy, and fertiliser crises caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have adversely impacted the global economy and are contributing factors to the expected recession in many industrialised parts of the world. At this backdrop, India’s decision to put forward the concerns of the Global South during its Presidency is apt.
Prime Minister Modi has spoken glowingly of the need to bring about attitudinal changes in humankind’s thinking because it now possesses the scientific and technological means to meet human wants. These noble thoughts will of course, be pushed by India in G20 forums, but will they change the interests-based thinking of the great powers?
Indeed, even as humankind faces grave and even some existential crises there is no evidence of a change in the basic impulses which govern the actions of the great powers. That leads to the obvious question that if there is no place for altruism in global affairs what can India do to push the concerns of the Global South.
‘India Needs To Narrow Focus on Climate Justice’
India’s interest in the Global South is not new though the term itself maybe fairly recent vintage. At a time when the extant term was for the colonised and later, developing world, India made sterling contributions to push for a fairer and more equitable International order.
Then it did not have a place on the world’s rule-making table but its social and political democratic processes gave it respect. It is now better placed because its economy is stronger but its problems have gotten compounded because it straddles both the rule-making bodies and the ‘trade unions’ of the world simultaneously.
And all this at a time of great domestic ideological contestation about its own future course. This would undoubtedly complicate its attempts to push the agenda for the Global South. Perhaps, it would be best for India to remain narrowly focussed on a couple of issues the most important of which would be climate justice for the Global South.
One last thought: while Jaishankar thanked his host for inviting him to the “Iconic New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra”, it would have been gracious of him to note the role played by the city in the initial mentoring of the greatest orchestra conductor which India has produced and one of the world’s great conductors—Zubin Mehta. Surely, it would not have been politically incorrect to do so just because Mehta is part of the Western music tradition. Or is that so now?
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)