I don’t usually write very much about foreign policy because there are hundreds of writers — or more, perhaps — who have dedicated their lives to studying Indian foreign policy and never hesitate to express an opinion. What, I wonder, am I ever going to say that the specialists have not already said?
But sometimes foreign policy and world affairs tell us a little bit about the state of our own country. This is one of those times. Over the last weeks, I have been fascinated by the way in which sections of India’s ruling elite have responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
There are three broad positions. The first is a response that is roughly similar to the West’s attitudes: Vladimir Putin had no business invading Ukraine, that even if he did have a genuine grievance, disputes cannot be settled by force and that the citizens of Ukraine are brave to have (so far, at least) resisted the might of a nuclear power.
Then there is a second response. Yes, all of the above may be true, but when India takes foreign policy stands, it must be guided by our own national interests and not only by some sense of right or wrong. (As Shekhar Gupta put it here so well, a few days ago, foreign policy is not about morality. It is about acting in the interests of the Indian people.)
And, when it comes to this conflict, our hands are tied. Russia is our major supplier of weapons. It isn’t just the arms we have ordered from the Russians. It is also spares, ammunition, and maintenance for our existing equipment. To stand against Russia would be to debilitate our armed forces. We have no real choice but to avoid criticising the Russians. There are subtle variations and nuances between these broad positions. As Shashi Tharoor has pointed out, we cannot define our national interests only in terms of arms shipments. If India fails to oppose the invasion of another country, then aren’t we sacrificing our long term interests anyway? What happens if China invades Arunachal Pradesh and occupies it? Do we still have the right to expect the world to help us? Or, have we now surrendered that right by refusing to criticise the invasion of Ukraine?
But the position that most clearly marks a break with the past is the third approach. This position is loudly adopted by what might be broadly described as pro-BJP media. It is notable for its open anti-Americanism and its support for President Putin. It is not the official position of the government of India, but equally, it is hard to see how nearly all of the government’s supporters in the media can take this stand without some official encouragement.
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Hindu Right against the US
The basic thrust of the third criticism is that the US has a poor history of supporting the rights of the people in other countries, that it ‘baited’ Russia into invading Ukraine, and so on. America has no real interest in helping the people of Ukraine. It only wants to harm Russia. Others have pointed out that Russia has always supported India, conveniently conflating the old USSR with today’s Russia.
Once you take away the shouting and the screaming on news TV and the overblown rhetoric, some of the criticism of the US is well-founded. Whataboutery can be a dangerous business, but it is certainly true that in a moral sense, George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was not so different from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. So why is Putin so evil and not Bush? Moreover, some US expectations of India are unfair. Why should we not buy oil from Russia when NATO countries continue to purchase energy from Russia?
The most interesting thing about the denunciations of the US is where they emanate from. Until a few years ago, the Hindu Right (for want of a better term) was largely pro-American. The USSR, now hailed as a great friend of India, was seen as an ally of the despised Nehru/Gandhis.
It was the Left, not the Right, that traditionally opposed anything to do with the US, including even the Indo-US nuclear deal, which was clearly in India’s interests. (The Left’s opposition to that deal was, depending on your perspective, either the Communist movement’s last hurrah or the final step on its road to national obscurity.) When the senior George Bush launched the first Gulf War in 1990 to liberate Kuwait, the Indian Left opposed him as bitterly as the Right is attacking Joe Biden today.
So, why has the Hindu Right suddenly abandoned the biases of a lifetime and become so anti-American? And why does the government of India, also run by the Hindu Right, not echo this anti-Americanism?
My sense is that India cannot afford an anti-American foreign policy. Just as it feels it cannot afford to alienate Russia as long as we need its arms, the Indian foreign ministry thinks it is best not to annoy Washington. But within the BJP leadership, there is a huge amount of anger with the US that has nothing to do with Ukraine.
The problem is with America’s criticism of India’s recent assaults on free speech and its concerns over the steady erosion of the country’s pluralistic character. Much of the Hindu Right’s anger is directed at US media (if you read the Right-wing media, you would think that Satan edited The New York Times in his spare time). American newspapers are described as racist, anti-Hindu, ignorant and resentful of what the Hindu Right sees as India’s growing stature around the world.
It has got worse since Donald Trump, who Narendra Modi felicitated in Gujarat and Houston, lost the election. Joe Biden is seen as antagonistic if not to India, then certainly to the sort of India that the Hindu Right wants to create. Hence the anti-Americanism.
This suits the Narendra Modi government just fine. It can point to the criticism and say to Washington: “We are your friends but given the strong domestic opposition to the war, we cannot take a more pro-American stand.”
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Two clear options before India
Even while the war in Ukraine rages, however, we should be asking ourselves deeper questions. A few days ago, at the ABP Ideas of India Summit in Mumbai, I interviewed Fareed Zakaria. Fareed’s view was that over the last decade or so, India has become so inward-looking and obsessed with its own issues and divisions that it has not spent enough time thinking about its place in the world, going forward.
While we have been obsessed with headscarves and caste arithmetic, the world has rearranged itself. No matter what happens in Ukraine, Russia will come out of the war damaged. If it makes peace, then some of the sanctions imposed on it by the West may be moderated but it seems unlikely that Putin’s Russia will become a full-fledged member of the global economy for a long time.
In that case, it will have no choice but to move into the Chinese sphere of influence. One scenario sees Russia as a classic vassal state of the Chinese, supplying energy and raw materials to feed the Chinese military machine and its industrial complex. Pakistan and China are longstanding allies, so we will probably see the emergence of a Russia-China-Pakistan alliance.
India will then have two choices. Either we agree to accept China’s suzerainty over the East. Or we look for other options.
Should we choose the second path (and I imagine we will have to), then there really is nowhere to go but the West. At present, the West understands how India is constrained by its dependence on Russian weaponry. But in the long run, it will expect a greater measure of alignment. Is that something we have considered? Or are we too blinded by the rhetoric about anti-Hindu America and hypocritical Washington?
Sooner, rather than later, we will have to rescue reality from the rhetoric.
Vir Sanghvi is an Indian print and television journalist, author, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.