India finds itself in an uncomfortable spot over the Ukraine standoff between Russia and the United States and NATO. India could not adopt a clear stand, to be either with Russia or with the US and NATO. It had no choice but to adopt a neutral stance and argue for a diplomatic resolution. It is, in many ways, India’s default position – not to be partisan.
Nehru’s famous stance was that we would not be part of any bloc, and that we will take an independent stance. And this has continued to be our position in 2022. The reason is simple. India is aware that it cannot influence the parties to the conflict to back off or modify their positions. Secondly, India does not want its economic and strategic interests to be compromised by taking sides. It does make sense that India stands where it does – neutral.
India Can't Afford to be Non-Committal
But if India wants to be a big power, it cannot afford to remain non-committal in world affairs. The position of China seems to reflect better the position of a country that is a recognised big player. China is an adversary from the Western point of view, and it is a friend of Russia.
So, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in his telephonic conversation with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken let it be known that it supports the security concerns of Russia. But he also said that China respects the sovereignty of Ukraine, as it should be with every country. Of course, Beijing would not yield ground on the issue of sovereignty of Taiwan. But it has made its position clear in the case of Russia and Ukraine.
What is India’s considered position? We can infer that India understands Russia’s strategic concerns vis-a-vis NATO. And it should be the case as well that India respects the sovereignty of Ukraine. Shouldn't India have stated its position, as China did? India should have spelt out its position because it is strategically connected to Russia, as it is to the US.
What holds back India is the fear that it would lose Western support, which it feels it needs in order to counter China. The US’s Indo-Pacific strategy is against China, and Washington wants India to be the bulwark of the anti-China alliance. However, there is no military alliance as such, and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is right in saying that the Quad is not an Asian NATO.
Indian strategists in government and outside must be reckoning with the fact that both Russia and the US are not alienated by India’s neutral stance. It is possible that Indian leaders and diplomats must be telling the Russians that India understands Moscow’s apprehensions about NATO, and they must be saying to the Americans that it is China, and not Russia, that is the real challenge. And this is exactly what Jaishankar tried to put across at the Munich Security Conference. But the Americans and the European members of NATO have their priorities, and the Indian argument does not make sense to them.
The Tremors Would be Felt Across the World
Though America may want to contain China, India is not keen to be the hegemon in the India-Pacific because it does not have the economic and military wherewithal to be one. But it does want to guard itself against a China-Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran combination. It is only Pakistan that is anxious to be part of the American security chain, but Islamabad is now reconciled that it has lost its position to India. The other three countries are out of the American loop.
India’s position remains difficult. And despite the enthusiasts in Delhi who want India to be an integral part of the US-led Western alliance, the government realises that going all the way with the US is not a wise option.
In a complicated globalised world, the effects of the crisis in Ukraine are to be felt far from the epicentre, as it were. So, the usually unflappable Union Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, had acknowledged that the headwinds arising out of the situation in Ukraine would affect the Indian economy, including rising crude oil prices, when she spoke to the media at the end of the Financial Stability Development Council (FSDC) meeting of market regulators in Mumbai on 22 February.
But there was a curious response from Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he said at an election rally at Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh that there is turmoil in the world and that India has to be strong. He added that tough times call for a tough leader. So, the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister are concerned about the developments in Ukraine, each in their own way.
Look Past the 'Oriental' Worldview
India remains a middle power with an expanding economy, and it knows this. That is why Jaishankar, in many of his statements, talks about a multi-polar global world. India must negotiate with global challenges from this position. At the end of the day, the reality is bound to catch up and political rhetoric takes a backseat.
But India can be more active and proactive than it is now. It could be playing the role of the ‘honest broker’ – a word used by Germany’s Bismarck when the country played host to the Berlin conference in 1878 to resolve the confrontation between Russia and Austria-Hungary.
Top Indian diplomats should have been visiting Moscow and Washington and Brussels to keep the communication channels open.
But Asian countries in general – and this includes China and Japan – keep themselves aloof in what they consider to be 'European affairs'. It is the so-called realistic, pragmatic, or ‘Oriental’ worldview. If India wants to be the world leader, it should engage in world affairs everywhere, whether it is Europe or Africa, or even central and south America. It might sound quixotic that India should be interested in the whole world when no direct national interest is at stake. But this is what India should be doing through BRICS, through the India-China-Russia linkage, through the Quad.
India should not be seen as a passive player who will speak up only when its own interests are involved. This narrow contented Hindu view of the world is antiquated in a globalised world.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based political journalist. He tweets @ParsaJr. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)