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Why Modi’s quote in ORF promo is addressing US & chastising Russia on Ukraine war

Apart from casting Modi in the pacifist mould of international statesmanship, the statement holds special resonance because of India’s position within the G20.

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The Observer Research Foundation’s promo for its flagship event, the Raisina Dialogue, got so much publicity for its blink-and-miss juxtaposition of an Iranian protest video—where women are seen cutting their hair alongside a photo of President Ebrahim Raisi—that the far more important statement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on war and peace, also in the promo, has been completely overshadowed by the controversy.

Aaj ka yug yudh ka nahin (Today’s era is not one of war),” says Modi, the short quote coming at 1:08 seconds in the 1:50 second-long ORF video. The quote is taken from Modi’s speech on the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit held last year in Uzbekistan, where Russian President Vladimir Putin was also present.

But as the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February approaches, followed by the G20 foreign ministers meeting and the Raisina Dialogue immediately thereafter, it is clear why this particular quote of the PM has been introduced into the ORF promo. The think-tank’s event is being held in partnership with the Ministry of External Affairs.

Also read: Modi moved heavens to mend ties with Arab world. But Nupur Sharma, Tejasvi Surya hurting it

The meaning behind Modi’s quote

Apart from casting Modi in the pacifist mould of international statesmanship, the statement has special resonance because it is being delivered by an Indian leader whose country is also spearheading the G20 this year.

The Modi quote in the ORF promo has three clear messages.

First, it is a message to Putin. Enough now, Modi is saying. Find a way to end that war. Remember that Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov will participate in the G20 meeting and the Raisina Dialogue. He has surely already seen, or will see the ORF promo. If anyone can carry a message back to Putin, it is Lavrov.

Second, as leader of the G-20, India seeks to represent the developing world, also known as the Global South. While India has protected its economic interests by continuing to import large quantities of oil from Russia—and skillfully, as we have seen in these columns—several other countries haven’t been able to walk that fine line between the two powers, Russia and the US, as easily. India hopes to bring the Global South’s concerns to the big table on why this proxy war between the US and Russia must end as soon as possible.

Modi’s message is that the war has caused much damage not just to Russia and Ukraine but is seriously hindering the world’s return to recovery post the Covid-19 pandemic. The price of oil has gone up, while US-led sanctions against Russia are having a spillover effect in other parts of the world too.

But it is the third message from Modi’s stable, directed at the US and the rest of India’s Quad partners, that is the most interesting. I don’t like the war as much as you, Modi seems to be saying to them, and I agree with you that it must stop now.

Also read: India, Germany can’t feel guilt about Russia ties. Modi’s Europe trip is in national interest

Treading the fine line

What is fascinating about India skillfully walking this fine line between Russia and the US is that it has to send different messages to both sides at the same time.

The message to Russia over the last year has been clear: India will continue to buy your oil, no matter the pressure from the US. But in the wake of President Joe Biden’s travels to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the promise of $500 million in aid and military supplies and a major speech in Poland’s Warsaw, India is resending the message: Despite the purchase of oil from Moscow, it remains on the side of democracy.

Using the Iranian protests in the ORF promo to underline the democracy message is a good tactic. As The Indian Express reported, the Iranian government recently protested the juxtaposed clip, requesting ORF and MEA to remove the video. But when they didn’t oblige, Tehran cancelled the visit of its Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, to Delhi.

Remember that the ORF’s Raisina Dialogue is being supported by the MEA. Does this beg the question, that the Iranians would have sounded the MEA out on its promo concerns? Would the ministry have made any suggestions to ORF in this regard? The fact that ORF stood its ground indicates that the MEA was on board with the belief that democracy is sacrosanct and must be protected.

Certainly, Delhi is seeking to underline its democratic credentials, and hoping that its message of standing strong with Western democracies will be noted elsewhere in the world. That’s why Delhi has been hosting a series of American influencers in the run up to the G20 foreign ministers meeting, where both Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken are expected.

This weekend, US assistant secretary for energy Geoffrey Pyatt, one of America’s smartest diplomats, was in town and turned around the negative message from Washington DC on the Indian purchase of discounted Russian oil. The US had absolutely no problem with India, Pyatt said, because it was pushing down Russian revenues and actually helping G7 policy on containing Russia.

Then on Monday, Modi met a group of US Senators led by Democrat Chuck Schumer and recalled his “shared vision” with Biden to elevate the relationship. They talked about clean energy and the need to cooperate on boosting critical technologies.

In the emerging, complicated post-Ukraine world, India recognises that all sides are circling each other – even though its own relationship with China is still on the rails. Beijing and Moscow are certainly partners in arms, which is why China’s top foreign policy adviser, Wang Yi,  was in Russia on Monday. And although it seems as if America’s foreign policy priority is to contain China, Washington is at the same time trying to develop an understanding with Beijing that will allow Biden to seek a reset with China— even as he orders the shooting down of alleged Chinese spy balloons.

And that’s how it goes in the world this week – each big and medium power is protecting its own national interest with little recourse to the moral ground. That’s why Modi is taking a leaf out of this hyper-realist policy and addressing the Americans this week.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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