On February 26, the United Nations Security Council voted on a resolution proposed by the United States. Of the 15 members of the Security Council, 11 voted in favor and Russia unsurprisingly used its veto to kill the resolution. China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstained. Two days later, India abstained on a vote at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that set up an international commission of inquiry into Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The country also abstained at the UN General Assembly, which voted 141-5 to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
India’s abstentions have led to much heartburn in the US and Europe. One high-flying national security lawyer in Washington argued that India was wrong to ignore Russia tearing down Article 2(4) of the Charter of the United Nations. Like many others, he took the view that India has sided with an aggressive autocrat, weakened its democratic credentials and proved to be a potentially unreliable partner of the West. The Economist has called India “abstemious to a fault.”
American Hypocrisy and Half-Measures Damn Ukraine and Help Russia
In particular, serving and retired American and British diplomats have been wringing their hands at India’s reticence to vote against Russia. For many Americans, this is a betrayal of the good faith that the US has reposed in India by giving the country a special nuclear deal in 2008 and designating India as a “major defense partner” in 2016. In 2018, the US elevated India to Strategic Trade Authorization tier 1 status, giving India license-free access to a wide range of military and dual-use technologies regulated by the Department of Commerce, a privilege the US accords to very few other countries. On Capitol Hill, India’s abstention is further viewed as an act of bad faith because many members of Congress and senators worked hard to waive sanctions against India. These were triggered by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act when India bought Russian S-400 missile systems.
Many Western business leaders are now wondering if India is a safe place to do business after the latest turn of events. For some in the West, this is yet another example of India slipping inexorably down the slippery slope of authoritarianism under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Two Unfriendly Nuclear Neighbors
Such fears are overblown. India remains a thriving democracy. Elections just took place in five states after colorful political campaigns. Infrastructure development in India is going on at a record pace and growth remains high amidst inflationary pressures. Despite some blunders such as the 2016 demonetization of high-denomination currency notes and the botched 2017 rollout of the goods and services tax, the Modi-led BJP has become more market-friendly.
As per the World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 report, India ranked 63 out of the surveyed 190 countries, a marked improvement from the 134 rank in 2014 when Modi came to power. Like the US, India is a fractious and, at times, exasperating democracy, but it is a fast-growing large economy. Even as US manufacturers Chevrolet and Ford exited the Indian market, Korean Kia and Chinese MG Motor India have achieved much success.
India is also proving to be a major force for stability in the region. After “America’s Afghanistan’s fiasco,” India has been picking up the pieces in an increasingly unstable region. The country is now providing humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people even as the US has abandoned them. Thousands of trucks roll out daily from India to Afghanistan via Pakistan as part of India’s effort to feed millions of starving Afghans. India is delivering 50,000 tons of wheat to a country led by the Taliban. Earlier, India sent 500,000 coronavirus vaccines as well as 13 tons of essential medicines and winter clothing to Afghanistan. Despite its reservations about the new regime in Kabul that offered refuge to hijackers of an Indian plane in 1999 and sent jihadists to Kashmir, a government branded as anti-Muslim by The New York Times is behaving magnanimously to help millions of Afghans facing starvation.
Despite its thriving democracy and growing economy, India remains a highly vulnerable nation in an extremely rough neighborhood. To its west lies an increasingly more radical Pakistan that, in the words of the late Stephen Philip Cohen, uses “terror as an instrument of state policy in Kashmir.” To its east lies an increasingly aggressive China led by President Xi Jinping assiduously using salami-slicing tactics to claim more Indian territory. In sharp contrast to the US, India has two nuclear-armed neighbors and faces the specter of a two-front war given what Andrew Small has called the China–Pakistan axis.
National security that occupies much headspace in Washington is a constant headache for New Delhi. Multiple insurgencies, street protests, mass movements, foreign interference and the specter of nuclear war are a daily worry. During the Cold War, Pakistan was an ally of the US and benefited greatly from American funding of the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. A 1998 report by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) tells us India was among the top three recipients of Soviet/Russian weapons from 1982 to 1996.
More recently, India has diversified its arms imports. A 2021 SIPRI fact sheet makes clear that India is now the biggest importer of French and Israeli arms. From 2011-15 to 2016-20 Russian arms exports to India dropped by 53%, but the country still remained the top importer. In 2016-20, Russia, France and Israel’s share of India’s arms imports comprised 49%, 18% and 13% respectively. A retired assistant chief of the integrated staff estimates that around 70% of India’s military arsenal is of Russian origin.
Given Indian dependence on Russian military hardware, it is only natural that New Delhi cannot afford to annoy Moscow. Critical Russian spares keep the defense forces combat-ready. For high-tech weaponry, which has the added advantage of coming at affordable prices, India relies on Russia. Moscow has also shared software and proprietary interaction elements for weapons delivery systems with New Delhi. Furthermore, Russia allows India to integrate locally-made weapons into its fighter jets or naval vessels unlike the US or even France.
From New Delhi’s point of view, the India–Russia military-technical cooperation is even more valuable than Russian military kit. Unlike the West, Russia has been willing to transfer technology, enabling India to indigenize some of its defense production. This began in the 1960s when India moved closer to the Soviet Union even as Pakistan became a full-fledged US ally. Since then, Moscow has shared critical technologies over many decades with New Delhi. India’s supersonic anti-ship missile BrahMos that the Philippines recently bought is indigenized Russian technology as is India’s main battle tank.
As a vulnerable nation in a rough neighborhood, India relies on Russia for security. Therefore, New Delhi decided it could not upset Moscow and abstained at all forums.
The China Factor
There is another tiny little matter worrying India. It is certain that Xi is observing and analyzing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As a revisionist power, China seeks to overturn the postwar order. Beijing has designs on Taiwan and territorial disputes with many of its neighbors. Its most recent armed confrontation occurred with India though. Since that June 2020 clash, Indian and Chinese troops are locked in a stalemate that repeated rounds of talks have failed to resolve.
More than anyone else, India fears a Russia–China axis. If Moscow threw in its lot with Beijing, India — deprived of technology and critical spares — might face a military catastrophe. If Russia sided with China in case of a conflict between the two Asian giants, India would face certain defeat.
Recent military cooperation between Russia and China has worried India. A few months ago, a flotilla of 10 Russian and Chinese warships circumnavigated Japan’s main island of Honshu for the very first time. This joint exercise demonstrated that Russia and China now have a new strategic partnership. Despite their rivalry in Central Asia and potential disputes over a long border, the two could team up like Germany and Austria-Hungary before World War I. Such a scenario would threaten both Asia and Europe but would spell disaster for India. Therefore, New Delhi has been working hard to bolster its ties with Moscow.
In December 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to India to meet Modi. During Putin’s trip, both countries signed a flurry of arms and trade deals. Apart from declarations about boosting trade and investment as well as purchasing various military equipment, Russia transferred the technology and agreed to manufacture more than 700,000 AK-203 rifles in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh where the BJP has just been reelected. In the words of a seasoned Indian diplomat Ashok Sajjanhar, Putin’s visit “reinvigorated a time-tested strategic partnership between India and Russia.”
Sajjanhar left unsaid what astute Indian diplomats say in private. India’s close relationship with Russia is insurance against China. New Delhi wants Moscow to act as a moderating influence on Beijing and act as an honest broker between the two Asian giants. India believes that there is no power other than Russia that could act as its bridge to China.
The Weight of History
When Sajjanhar was speaking about a time-tested relationship, he meant decades of close India–Russia ties. During World War II and in the run-up to independence in 1947, the US earned much goodwill because Franklin D. Roosevelt championed the Atlantic Charter, promising independence to the colonies. However, relationships soured soon after independence because India chose socialism under its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
When the US conducted a coup against the democratically elected Iranian government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, India came to view the US as a neocolonial power. It is easy to forget now that Washington backed the interests of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company over those of the government of Iran, triggering trepidation among Indian leaders who remembered clearly that their country was colonized by the British East India Company. The coup gave both capitalism and the US a bad name and pushed New Delhi closer to Moscow.
In the following years, India’s ties with the Soviet Union strengthened. As Pakistan became a firm Cold War ally of the US, India embraced socialism ever more firmly and became a de facto Soviet ally, claims of non-alignment notwithstanding. In 1956, the Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian Revolution. Nehru censured Moscow in private but refused to condemn Soviet action even as he railed against the Anglo-French intervention in the Suez. As per Swapna Kona Nayudu’s well-researched paper for the Wilson Center, New Delhi now became “a crucial partner in international politics for Moscow.”
In 1968, the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring, an uprising in then-Czechoslovakia that aimed to reform the communist regime. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, was prime minister, and she publicly called for the Soviets to withdraw their troops. In the UN Security Council, though, India abstained in the vote on the Czechoslovakia matter, attracting widespread condemnation from the American press.
Three years later, India went to war with Pakistan to liberate Bangladesh. This did not go down well in the US, despite the fact that the military dictatorship of Pakistan was inflicting murder, torture and rape in a genocide of horrific proportions. During the 1971 India–Pakistan War, Richard Nixon called Gandhi a “bitch” and Henry Kissinger termed Indians as “bastards.” Indian diplomats repeatedly point out that Nixon and Kissinger ignored their own diplomats like Archer Blood who valiantly spoke truth to power about Pakistani atrocities, a story chronicled superbly by Princeton professor Gary J. Bass in “The Blood Telegram.” Instead, they sent vessels from the Seventh Fleet to intervene on Pakistan’s behalf. It was the Soviets who came to India’s rescue by sending their naval vessels to counter the American ones.
India repaid Moscow’s 1971 favor when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. In 1980, India refused to condemn this invasion at the UN. During the decade that followed, the US funded the mujahideen in Afghanistan through Pakistan. Relations between the US and Pakistan became closer than ever at a time when General Zia-ul-Haq launched Operation Tupac to “bleed India through a thousand cuts” by championing insurgencies within India. First Punjab and then Kashmir went up in flames. Terrorism became a feature of daily life for India, but the US turned a Nelson’s eye to the phenomenon until the grim attacks of September 11, 2001.
Since those attacks, India and the United States have moved closer together. Thousands of Indian students study in the US every year, American investment has flowed into India and defense cooperation has steadily increased. The US views India as a valuable partner to contain the rise of an aggressive China, and New Delhi cares more about Washington than any other capital on the planet.
Even as US–India ties have deepened, New Delhi has retained close ties with Moscow. Russia continues to build nuclear power plants in energy-hungry India. Plans to import more Russian oil and gas have also been in the works. Because of these ties, India did not condemn Russian action against Crimea in 2014. The left-leaning government in power at that time went on to say that Russia had “legitimate” interests in Ukraine.
It is important to note that no opposition party has criticized the government’s position. Shashi Tharoor, a flamboyant MP of the Indian National Congress party who said that India was on “the wrong side of history,” got rapped on the knuckles by his bosses. The opposition and the government have almost identical views on the matter. Neither supports Russian aggression against Ukraine, but no party wants to criticize an old friend of the nation.
Political Factors, Domestic and International
War in Ukraine is obviously not in India’s interest. India imports energy, and rising oil prices are going to unleash inflation in an economy with high unemployment. This worries both political and business leaders. In its statement at the UN, India called for peace and diplomacy. In official statements, India has also expressed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. India does not in any way support Russian aggression but cannot criticize Moscow for a host of reasons described above as well as often overlooked political factors.
Indian leaders have also been preoccupied with elections in five critical states. Political analysts consider these elections to be a dress rehearsal for the 2024 national elections. With stakes so high, the ruling BJP was under pressure to bring home thousands of Indian students studying in Ukraine safely. For this, India relied on Russia. While some might say this necessitated a Faustian silence, 18,000 Indian lives were at stake.
India also had reservations about Ukraine. Reports of Indian students facing racism in Ukraine have been doing the rounds on social media. These may be info ops by Russians, but they have touched a chord among the masses. Press reports of fleeing Indian students facing racism and segregation at the Ukrainian border have not helped, nor have memories of Ukrainian arms deals with Pakistan, which have triggered Indian suspicions. Even though India is against the conflict, New Delhi does not want to forsake an old friend and support a potentially hostile power.
India also suspects the motives of the West in taking on Putin. There is a strong feeling across nearly all political parties that the US would not show the same concern for a non-white nation in Asia or Africa. Left-leaning parties point out that the US and the UK based their 2003 invasion of Iraq on a pack of lies. A popular Indian television anchor has railed against the “racist reportage” of Western media that treats blue-eyed, blonde Ukrainian refugees differently to Syrian or Afghan ones.
There is also another matter driving India’s hesitation to go along completely with the US in targeting Russia. An increasing trust deficit between the Democrats and the BJP is harming US–India relations. For years, The New York Times and The Washington Post have relentlessly criticized the BJP, accusing the party of being authoritarian, if not fascist. Even food aid to the impoverished citizens in Taliban-led Afghanistan did not get any recognition from the papers of record in New York and Washington.
Billionaires like George Soros who support Democrats have been vocal against the BJP and Modi. Their foundations have also funded Indian organizations opposed to the BJP. Americans see this funding as an expression of idealism that seeks to promote civil society and democracy. On the other hand, many Indians see American funding as a sinister ploy to weaken the nationalist BJP and replace them with weak, pliant leaders. Indians are also irked by the fact that Democrats rarely give credit to the BJP for winning elections, the democratic proof of its platform’s popularity.
Democrats have also been pressuring India to legalize gay marriage, forgetting that the issue is pending before the Indian Supreme Court. Indians point out that it was the British who decreed “unnatural” sexual acts” as not just illegal but also imprisonable during Queen Victoria’s heyday. The BJP has already come out in favor of legalizing homosexuality but has no power to intervene in a matter pending before the court. The failure of Democrats to recognize this reeks of a white savior complex that destroys trust between Washington and New Delhi.
Many BJP leaders are convinced that the Democrats are plotting some sort of a regime change in the 2024 elections. They believe there is an elaborate game plan in place to discredit Modi and the BJP. In this worldview, the Democrat establishment is manipulating discourse and peddling narratives that could lead to some version of the Orange Revolution in India. They are convinced that once Putin goes, Modi might be next. Even though India is opposed to a war that is severely hurting its economy, this fear of Western interference in domestic political matters is one more reason for India to abstain from turning on its old friend Russia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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