Only the very naïve or unkind would think that External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s slip of tongue in his opening remarks at the press interaction in Delhi last week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was sitting next to him, was not just that – a slip of tongue. Describing the time-tested and very cordial nature of the relationship, Jaishankar said “India-US,” instead of “India-Russia.”
Lavrov didn’t flinch. A former diplomat with a serious interest in physics, Lavrov has been Russia’s foreign minister since 2004 and understands the pressures that people in high places are often besieged with. But the incident reminded me of the time when former foreign minister S.M. Krishna inadvertently read the speech of the Portuguese foreign minister at a UN meeting in 2011, because it was placed right on top of the pile of papers on his table.
More seriously, though, Lavrov’s visit has been interesting for a number of reasons, not least because his visit to Pakistan from Delhi has been construed as terrible Russia policy. In an interview with this reporter, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close aide and confidante Vyacheslav Nikonov emphasised that New Delhi need not take the Pakistan trip too seriously, because Pakistan hardly figured on Russia’s foreign policy agenda.
But Nikonov also admitted that Lavrov’s visit was “a signal” to New Delhi about the changing world order. That if Delhi wanted to expand its own repertoire of friendships, notably with the US – which had outright refused to downgrade its own ties with Pakistan – then it could not expect Moscow’s total fidelity in this regard.
That’s why Jaishankar’s slip of tongue is important – it signifies not just the shrunken measure of the India-Russia relationship, it is a tell-tale sign that the “time-tested” relationship is getting misshapen because both sides simply don’t care enough about the sensitivities of the other.
What went wrong
First of all, the trip to Pakistan. There was simply no need for Lavrov to travel to Islamabad at a time when India has clawed its way back into the Afghan great game, which both Pakistan and its patron, China, have successfully prevented all these years.
Lavrov was probably influenced by his own joint secretary equivalent in charge of South Asia, Zamir Kabulov. Now Kabulov used to be Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan a decade or so ago and left no stone unturned in pushing the point that Russia must maintain close ties with Pakistan, because of the leverage it has over the Taliban – keeping especially in mind Russia’s own significant Muslim population.
This is the same US argument – and, presumably, a Chinese one. Which is that it is essential to maintain close links with those who have influence, or leverage, in this case Pakistan. Russia is following the same maxim.
Second, Lavrov was unable to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi because the latter was campaigning in West Bengal – although John Kerry, the US presidential envoy, did manage a meeting the following day. So what prevented Lavrov from coming in one day later, or staying on, like Kerry did?
Considering protocol is more than half the time spent by foreign office diplomats, either the Russians messed up by not insisting on a Lavrov-Modi meeting, or the Indians just shrugged their shoulders and didn’t persuade Modi’s schedule-keepers to try and find a slot for Lavrov – or, probably both.
Third, the perception that India is moving into the US camp is increasingly gaining ground. In addition to all of the above, Modi had quite an encounter with the visiting US defence secretary Lloyd Austin. Then there is the more recent illegal navigation by the US Seventh Fleet guided missile destroyer, the USS John Paul Jones through India (and Maldives) exclusive economic zone because – well, the waters were in its path – without so much as informing the Indian authorities.
The Americans argue that they do not abide by the UN Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) and therefore found no need to inform India about its freedom of navigation operations. The MEA issued a statement of concern.
How the world has changed. Fifty years ago, in 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the former Soviet Union, when the US Seventh Fleet tried to enter the Bay of Bengal, demonstrating its power on behalf of Pakistan, as things got rough in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). In 2021, the US Seventh Fleet “innocently” passed through the Lakshadweep waters, without permission, even though India is now part of a US-led grouping known as the Quad.
Fourth, for someone of his sophistication, Vyacheslav Nikonov’s interpretation of the Quad as being an anti-Russia alliance is unusual. He argues that the US has made no bones about its enmity with Russia (“Joe Biden recently called Putin a killer”) and because India is part of the US-led grouping, it follows that India is also part of America’s dark anti-Russia designs.
Delhi and Moscow, slipping
Clearly, there is deep misperception here between Indian and Russian interlocutors and neither side is able – or seem interested – in bridging this yawning chasm. For example, Jaishankar, in his opening comments at the press interaction with Lavrov, admitted that “our defence sector requirements in the past year were expeditiously addressed.”
Jaishankar, of course, is referring to the list of defence equipment that India asked from Russia – which it gave – to defend itself when Chinese troops were climbing the Ladakh heights. So you would ask: Why doesn’t Jaishankar say so, publicly?
The answer is a simple one – it would offend too many other people around. If it were known that India was using Russian defence equipment against the Chinese, what would it do to the Russian-Chinese strategic tie that Nikonov talks so warmly about? Or for that matter, what would it do to the burgeoning India-US relationship, where the US is encouraging India to buy more American arms?
The thing about a changing world order is one wishes, at least in some ways, that the more things change, the more they should remain the same. For example, during an early visit to the US, Indira Gandhi was asked if India leaned towards the US or the Soviet Union.
Neither, she answered smilingly, we stand upright.
Once the results of India’s electrifying elections are out on 2 May, perhaps PM Modi will assert some of that sentiment.
The author is a consulting editor. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)
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