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HomeOpinionGlobal PrintHow Gautam Adani is helping Modi govt with India's foreign policy challenges

How Gautam Adani is helping Modi govt with India’s foreign policy challenges

India’s decision to walk the middle path, both on the Quad and the Russia-US tangle, is not only right but also courageous.

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Three recent announcements have pretty much set the tone for Indian foreign policy in the year to come. First, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s remarks on India-US relations were remarkable for their confidence and forthrightness. Second, Russia’s crude oil export to India surged to a new high of one million barrels a day, according to the energy tracker Vortexa.

And third, Gautam Adani, the third richest person in the world and said to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, completed the purchase of the Haifa port in Israel, strategically located on the Mediterranean, for a cool $1.15 billion.

All three seemingly unrelated events are actually related – and that too, quite interestingly. Jaishankar’s message to the high-profile audience at the closed-door conference organised by the Ananta Aspen Centre think-tank in Delhi was, essentially, a piece of advice delivered to friends. Which is, that the India-US relationship is not a transactional one, so don’t look at the purchase of defence goods as an indicator of things looking up or down.

Advice to the US

Jaishankar may or may not have been referring to the government’s plan to buy 26 French Rafale jets for the Indian Navy, and rejecting the US firm Boeing’s F/A 18 Super Hornet aircraft.

Now this is good advice, which by all accounts, the Americans are listening to. They are also learning to hold their peace. One big learning comes from the Indian backlash last year to US criticism of India’s decision to buy discounted oil from Russia, days after the latter invaded Ukraine.

The American angst is related to India’s decision to shore up a dictator, Vladimir Putin, when he was raining missiles down on innocent men, women and children – India agreed, but pointed out that the temptation to buy cheap oil was too great to be ignored.

That the Modi government’s top priority was to keep the economy as healthy as possible for all its citizens. Buying non-Russian oil was far too expensive – especially since the US had also sanctioned traditional partners and oil-producing nations Iran and Venezuela – and would eat into India’s budget coming off Covid.

The Americans understood and are believed to have moved their unhappiness to private conversations. India’s purchase of Russian oil has only gone up – energy tracker Vortexa confirms that more than one million barrels of oil per day were bought in December.

India has been in that odd position over the past year – holding its nose at what Putin is doing in Ukraine, but unable to say much about it because it needs Russia. One look at the European situation this winter, when households are being forced to turn down their heat even for domestic use, will tell you that the Modi government has taken the right decision to walk this path.

Petroleum minister Hardeep Singh Puri’s presence at the Aspen Centre conference reinforces the government’s middle path strategy on Russia and the US. That India very much believes in the special relationship with Washington DC and hopes that the Biden administration understands its compulsions. 

Also read: Modi wants to shed strongman image. He is getting help from India-origin leaders abroad

Delhi’s puzzle

But there is something that New Delhi doesn’t quite understand about the Biden administration – and that is, its refusal to name an ambassador to India two years into its tenure and remaining determined to nominate former Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti.

None other than Congress MP Shashi Tharoor highlighted this view in an article in The Los Angeles Times, pointing out that India is quite mystified that its “indispensable partnership” with the US is being treated so casually by the Biden administration.

Clearly, if the Garcetti nomination is having problems, aren’t there any other Americans who can make the cut? Or has Biden run out of both ideas and friendly folk and doesn’t really care about the India relationship?

That’s why Gautam Adani’s purchase of the Haifa port on the Mediterranean is so important. Make no mistake, this is a strategic decision. According to the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, Adani’s bid was five times higher than the second bidder, and it was said that “price was less important.” Across the Haifa bay sit the Chinese – they have bought out the Haifa container terminal. Some say that the Chinese were interested in buying out Haifa Port as well.

The Adani purchase indicates that there is a new game in town – India’s determination to match the Chinese, knuckle by knuckle. There is also no question that the Indian view is underscored by none other than the Americans.

Delhi is being careful, of course. It understands there is no need to play cowboy – the Chinese are next door, breathing down its neck in Ladakh, and there is no need to antagonise them any further. That is why India believes that the Quad is not a military alliance – distributing Covid vaccines and reforming the economy are good places to start.

India’s decision to walk the middle path, both on the Quad and the Russia-US tangle, is absolutely the right one. It’s also much more difficult – so much easier to throw in your hat with either Moscow or DC. But to walk the tortuous and twisted road that no one else takes requires courage. Prime Minister Modi and his team seem to have delivered on India’s most difficult foreign policy challenge over the last year.

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

(Edited by Prashant)

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