New Delhi: Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union who died Tuesday, was a strong supporter of India, having shared a close friendship with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and offered New Delhi some state-of-the-art military technology even before providing it to Moscow’s Warsaw Pact allies.
Gorbachev’s outreach to countries like India as well as his efforts to thaw relations with the US, pulling troops out of Afghanistan, and working to improve relations with all neighbours, marked a shift in Soviet foreign and military policy.
Soviet arms transfers were key to Moscow’s success in the ‘Third World’, and India was a prime example.
In his book ‘Gorbachev’s Retreat: The Third World’, author Melvin Goodman points out that India received MiG-23 fighter and MiG-29 interceptor aircraft from the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. It also received some T-72 tanks “before some of Moscow’s Warsaw Pact allies, and entered into a co-production scheme for this system”.
India was also the first “Third World” country to lease nuclear submarines from the Soviet Union.
‘Most trusting of Rajiv Gandhi’
Gorbachev worked closely with then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on the issue of nuclear disarmament, and the two leaders grew to share a deep camaraderie. Gorbachev was “most trusting of Rajiv Gandhi” and often vented his frustrations to him, such as when the US was preparing to launch a ground offensive ahead of the 1991 Gulf War.
“Years and decades pass, generations of people in our countries come and go, but relations of friendship and cooperation between the USSR and India continue to develop in ascending order,” Gorbachev said when Gandhi had arrived in Moscow on his first official visit in 1985.
Both Gandhi and Gorbachev entered office around the same time, the former in 1984 and the latter in 1985, following the deaths of their predecessors. Representing the start of new chapters in both their countries, the two leaders tried to maintain a continuity in their relationship. Within his first three years in office, Gandhi visited Moscow five times.
In 1986, on his first visit to an Asian country, Gorbachev arrived in India to sign the Delhi Declaration with Gandhi. The agreement focused on complete nuclear disarmament and for the Indian side, echoed the concept of non-violence as practised by Mahatma Gandhi.
The Soviet leader returned to India in 1988 to implement the principles of the Delhi Declaration. This visit strengthened Soviet-Indian relations in trade, economy, science, technology, and culture, and entailed the signing of many inter-governmental agreements such as for the construction of a nuclear power plant in India, cooperation in the exploration and peaceful use of space, and more.
It was also on this trip that the Soviet leader was awarded the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development.
But communists in India looked with suspicion upon Gorbachev’s outreach to Asia and his policy to help resolve regional disputes. According to reports during his 1988 trip, Indian communists suspected that Leftist guerrillas and governments in Asia and Africa would “no longer be able to count on the Soviets”.
New thinking on foreign, defence policy
Gorbachev turned much of Soviet defence and foreign policy on its head by deciding to thaw relations with the US, pull troops out of Afghanistan, and work to improve relations with all neighbours, including India and Pakistan.
Working to defuse US-Soviet nuclear tensions in the 1980s and bringing Eastern Europe out from behind the Iron Curtain were some of his lasting legacies. But, it came with a price. While he was admired in the West, Gorbachev invited harsh criticism from his own countrymen, who lamented the end of the Soviet Union as a global superpower.
As researchers Jiri Valenta and Frank Cibulka point out in their book ‘Gorbachev’s New Thinking and Third World Conflicts’, the Soviet leader, upon ascending to power in 1985, distanced himself from the “ideologically rigid and militarily threatening posture towards the region” followed by predecessors like Leonid Brezhnev.
Instead, there emerged a new thinking, especially on Afghanistan as evident in the “changed tone of Gorbachev’s reference to it as a krovotochashchaia rana (bleeding wound)”.
The authors also note a change in tone vis-a-vis Pakistan.
For example, in Gorbachev’s report to the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in February 1986, criticism of Pakistan for supporting and housing Afghan rebels, as was the practice under previous Soviet leaders like Brezhnev, was missing.
(Edited by Tony Rai)