A non-aligned foreign policy may be passe, but neutrality in the conduct of foreign relations is not.
As the murderous Russian attack on Ukraine enters its second month with multiple casualties and destruction, there is increasing pressure on India by the United States to come on their side; after all, democracies have institutions and people in common, and not oligarchies!
On March 21, US President Joe Biden told a meeting of business leaders in Washington that among the so-called Quad group of nations, India was being "somewhat shaky" in its response to Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
The US, Japan, and Australia - the three other members of this coalition formed to counter China's influence in the Indo-Pacific - have been "extremely strong in terms of dealing with Putin's aggression", he said.
Wrote Derek Grossman, senior defence analyst at US’s RAND Corporation: "New Delhi should be concerned about Moscow's place in the mix as well. Sino-Russian ties are stronger than ever, raising doubts over whether New Delhi can continue to trust Moscow as it did when they were aligned during the Cold War, including against Beijing. Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to New Delhi in December produced few tangible policy outcomes. Instead, the summit was headlined by Moscow's delivery of its S-400 surface-to-air missile system.”
There is a good reason for Biden’s ire. India has abstained from voting in the UN three times in a week - on resolutions condemning Russia, allied reportedly to economic underpinnings.
Reports of a surge of Indian imports of discounted Russian oil as energy prices spiked in the wake of the war, have emerged. India has stopped short of criticising Russia which it has called a `long standing and time-tested friend’ in the past.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia supplied about half of India’s arms imports between 2015 and 2020. But these imports are down from about 70 percent between 2011 and 2015.
"Among the nations standing against Russian acts in violation of international norms, many are willing to sell armaments while upholding democracy,” an American official said, rather testily, adding, "when 141 countries condemned the Russian invasion and military operations, India stood aside.”
So, could India’s diplomatic fence-sitting prove to be costly, particularly when Indo-US bilateral ties have consolidated in the last decade or so?
Top Indian diplomats remain unmoved. Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal told Moneycontrol: "India is going by the merits of the situation. A country cannot sacrifice its relationship with Russia because of the demands of the West. India is not required to take sides. When Iraq, Yugolavia, Iran and Syria happened, was India on the right side of history?”
Sibal adds: "Western hegemons are showing what they are capable of doing; confiscating reserves, freezing bank balances, capturing private properties of Russian citizens and trying to isolate that country. Afterall, the US controls the global financial systems. The world is watching it.”
Explains another former Indian ambassador Rajiv Bhatia, Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House: "India is strictly neutral. Its stand is determined by a continuously changing situation in Europe. The challenge to stay with the US is not an UN-sponsored resolution. India is not taking sides; it is calling upon all concerned to resolve matters diplomatically.”
What could happen if the war increases its area of operation – if Russia decides to take on the NATO countries, for instance? "Poland knows the consequences of Russian ire, as do some of the other countries of this alliance, which is why Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has recently referred to NATO politics as `ping-pong’ diplomacy. Many in the NATO brotherhood are not sure of what help they may get just in case nuclear-armed Russia decides to enlarge the war and hit their territory,” Bhatia told Moneycontrol.
The fact that India is being wooed can scarcely be denied. The Americans are keen to point out that Indo-US bilateral trade ties are worth US $150 billion, compared to $8 billion between India and Russia.
US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland visited Delhi last week, saying she had `broad and deep conversations' with Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and senior officials. While acknowledging the historical relationship between New Delhi and Moscow, she said that "times have changed now" and there was "an evolution of thinking in India".
But this was rhetorical as compared to what she told journalists later - that the US and Europe were willing to be strong "defence and security partners of India". She went as far as saying that the US could help wean India off its dependence on Russian defence supplies – a position, which is ironically and diametrically, opposed to the stand adopted by the West during the Cold War.
Afterall, as ambassador Bhatia reasons, it is Europe’s war not Asia’s.
At the same time, India has not been cold to the dire needs of Ukraine.
In a joint statement issued last week by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida during the latter's visit to Delhi, the two expressed their "serious concern about the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine", emphasising that "the temporary global order has been built on the UN Charter, international law and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of states".
Modi has spoken to both Presidents Putin and Zelensky urging them to end the violence. His government managed to get more than 22,000 Indians out of Ukraine in 90 evacuation flights.
Even though Sino-Indian relations have dipped to a new low, China's foreign minister Wang Yi said on March 29 that the two Asian giants were not a threat to each other. New Delhi has done well to take such statements at face value.
India has doggedly pursued a non-aligned or neutral foreign policy since Independence, where, according to the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, "we will stay away from the big blocs…to be friendly to all countries…not join any alliance." Despite searing political differences between political parties since then, this is one bottom-line, which has been adhered to by whoever has ruled the country.