PM Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok
Representational image | PM Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok | Twitter: @PMOIndia
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If anniversaries are a good way of remembering the past and learning not to be surprised in the present, then the 50th anniversary of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation is a remarkable marker of the sophisticated distance that India has travelled.

Here are three lessons India has learnt since its signature in New Delhi on August 9, 1971, as it negotiated its way through the diplomatic thicket of international realpolitik.

When Indira Gandhi played hardball

First, never completely trust even your best friends. This counter-intuitive phrase has its origins in Indira Gandhi’s understanding of the Soviet Union in 1971, which wanted to keep all its options open even as foreign minister Andrei Gromyko readied to fly to Delhi to sign the treaty.

In his book, Intertwined Lives, Jairam Ramesh says that India got wind of the fact that Gromyko wanted to visit Pakistan on his way back to Moscow – remember, the Soviets fancied their deal-making abilities, and had persuaded India and Pakistan to sign a peace agreement in Tashkent after the 1965 war (where then-PM Lal Bahadur Shastri died of a heart attack).

Well, Indira Gandhi was not terribly ecstatic about Gromyko’s Pakistan trip idea, according to Ramesh, and told Moscow its foreign minister need not come to Delhi at all if he also wishes to travel to Pakistan. Moral? Gandhi was willing to play hardball even with the country that was going to provide India security cover in the coming war with Pakistan.

Cut to the present. Russia has organised an “extended troika” meeting in Afghanistan in Doha on 11 August, but invites are limited to Pakistan, China and the US. In its eagerness to please Pakistan, which retains considerable influence over the Taliban, which is capturing province after province in Afghanistan, Moscow has refused to invite Delhi for the meeting.


Also read: India, Russia less useful to each other now. Disagreements will only grow


Being flexible on friendship

Second, there are no permanent friends or enemies in diplomacy. The situation in August 1971 is illustrative. Pakistan’s military establishment led by Yahya Khan ignored the East Pakistan leader Mujibur Rehman’s December 1970 claim to form the government when his Awami Party won the elections (167 out of 169 seats allotted to East Pakistan), and three months later cracked down brutally, killing lakhs of people; in July 1971, Pakistan enabled the secret visit of Henry Kissinger to China, thereby earning Nixon’s everlasting gratitude. The US and Pakistan – and China – became fast friends.

Cut to the present. The US and China are ranged against each other, from politics to sports, from the US inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus to edging out China with 39 golds to 38 (and 113 to 88 overall) in the just-concluded Olympics in Tokyo. The US is also working with Pakistan as it exits Afghanistan, all the while keenly aware of the Pakistan-China relationship, which both sides describe as “higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the ocean and sweeter than honey”.

Meanwhile, the China-Russia pendulum has swung wildly. In November 1962, the Marxist-Leninist brothers split over the Cuban missile crisis – one month after Mao persuaded Stalin not to interfere in its border conflict with India. By 1971, Mao had been persuaded to improve China’s relationship with the US, primarily because it was ranged against the former Soviet Union, thereby facilitating the 1971 Nixon visit, via Pakistan. Ten years after the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union, a significantly weakened Russia in 2001 concluded a treaty of friendship with China.

Interestingly, Article 9 of the Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship, signed in 2001, is almost identical to Article IX of the 1971 Indo-Soviet treaty – which committed both countries to come to the other’s aid in times of threat.

On the Afghanistan conflict today, both Russia and China are keeping mum, albeit for their own reasons. At the UN Security Council meeting last week called by India, the current President of the Council, the Russian representative admitted to nervousness about “record increases in drug production” – believed to be seriously affecting the Russian military and civilian population. Later this week in Doha, the Russians will host a meeting with the Taliban at which the Chinese will be present, but not India.

At the UNSC meeting, the Chinese warned against interference by “external powers”, likely referring to the US; the week before, a Taliban delegation had met with Chinese officials in Tianjin.


Also read: India and US must know the new Cold War is a different beast – China isn’t USSR


Learning to find its way in

India’s third lesson since 1971 is not really a lesson – it’s a skill it has forged. For a “non-aligned” young nation thrown into the hurly-burly and enormously deceptive cesspool of Cold War politics, India has managed to largely survive, sometimes cultivating one friend, other times another. Many have condemned New Delhi for abandoning its cosy ties with Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union for the brighter lights of the US, but both Congress and BJP governments have actually turned out to be more similar than different.

Across the Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi governments, the US has clearly become India’s most important relationship, but neither party has shied away from disagreeing with Washington DC when the national interest diverged – for example, on Afghanistan today, where the US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has more or less handed over the key to Kabul’s future to Pakistan. Last week’s meeting at the UNSC was expressly called by India, on Afghanistan’s urging, to show the world where the big powers stand.

The 1971 anniversary is also a great marker of how India has moved on. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Indira Gandhi never approved but didn’t want to be seen to be publicly expressing displeasure against Moscow either.

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, diversification has been the name of the game. Military dependence on Russian military hardware is being actively watered down with weapons purchases from the US as well as France – one reason, of course, is that the Russians are selling their most sophisticated weaponry, including S-400 missiles, to China, which India also covets. Significantly, China has deployed the S-400s on the Tibet-Xinjiang border not far from the Line of Actual Control on the Ladakh front, where Chinese and Indian troops have been facing off for over a year.

But joint military exercises with Russia carry on, as do the Malabar exercises with Western powers in the Quad. Meanwhile, a new troika with Australia and France is reportedly in the offing.

Has India done enough these last 50 years? Should it play a more active role, especially in the region, for example in Afghanistan? After all, the sovereignty of a fellow SAARC nation is at stake – some would say, just like in 1971, when Indira Gandhi helped split up Pakistan in two. (There was no SAARC then.)

Things have changed enormously since 1971, of course – and not just because both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers now. But just like 1971, when the Pakistanis unleashed a genocide against East Pakistanis and Gandhi waged a diplomatic offensive across the world – and K. Subrahmanyam, a key strategic expert, notably accused Henry Kissinger of not understanding why East Pakistanis were pouring into India when he, a Jew, had fled from Nazi Germany for much of the same reason – the Narendra Modi government is, for the time being at least, preferring to wage a “name and shame” offensive on the Afghanistan front.

For example, the Afghan leadership has hardly been coy about accusing Pakistan of backing the Taliban – but has that prevented the US or Russia or China from pressuring Pakistan to stop? Since the answer is no, and since neither Russia nor the US or China is doing much to invite India to the Afghan talks table, New Delhi is making itself relevant in different ways.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s several visits to Qatar over the last few months has resulted in an invite to India to participate in a meeting of all the Afghan special envoys named by all the big powers in Doha later this week – an invite brought by Qatari special envoy for conflict resolution, Mutlaq bin Majed Al-Qahtani, when he came to Delhi last week.

Alongside Zalmay Khalilzad, Zamir Kabulov and others, India’s representative will now listen and intervene and try to shape the outcome of things to come. From being a rank outsider on Afghanistan, India is finding a way in.

From 1971-2021, India’s drive to remain relevant continues. Certainly, it’s a work in progress.

The author is a senior consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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