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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Putin's war sets India on a diplomatic tightrope

In the corporate world, they say a good manager does not reprimand a sub- ordinate in front of other colleagues. Public praise and private rebuke is the more effective style. Negative feedback in front of office mates is often considered shameful by the recipient, who might go into a funk. Or worse, become disengaged and demotivated. And for each disengaged employee, it takes four other highly-energized employees to neutralize the negative atmosphere that gets created. Giving subordinates feedback is an art and a vast subject in its own right. It has to be continual, frank, fair, friendly and yet not demotivating. The test of good feedback is that it helps the recipient improve.

What works in the corporate world, i.e. private rebuke, may not be relevant to international diplomacy among nations. But parallels are tempting to draw. India is drawn into the Ukraine conflict and is under pressure to condemn Russian aggression in someone else’s sovereign territory. Russia is hardly a subordinate. It is a great power, arguably in decline. Should India publicly condemn it or restrain itself?

This is realpolitik. It is not about morality, but about national interest. Unlike a manager in a corporate office, here we weigh cost against benefit. What does India gain from a public rebuke? Moscow will take offence and may start tilting towards Pakistan or China, complicating our other disputes.

Asia is emerging as a stress point in the larger global balance of power. India has historic links with Russia, and our national interest dictates that this relationship is nurtured, not broken. Russia has been a reliable supplier of arms, ammunition, hardware and military technology, and will soon supply the modern S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. The hugely successful Brahmos project is a joint venture for weaponry that India exports to third countries.

On the other hand, the US by signing a civil nuclear deal with New Delhi in 2006 brought India out from nuclear apartheid. It is a major trading partner, and the only country with which India has a significant trade surplus. It is part of the new coalition called Quad and there is talk of a free-trade agreement. Should India throw in its lot with the US? This is a formidable diplomatic challenge for the Narendra Modi government. It has already chosen to abstain on a UN resolution condemning Russia. On this, it has been consistent with a long tradition, as was pointed out by seasoned diplomat and author Syed Akbaruddin. In 1956, when the USSR invaded Hungary, the Jawaharlal Nehru government opted for silence. In fact, it chose to publicly chastise British and French aggression to take over the Suez Canal. In 1968, too, Indira Gandhi’s government was publicly mum on Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia. In 1971, India was at the receiving end of double standards. Pakistan’s genocide in East Pakistan was ignored by the Western world, but India’s entry into its eastern territory was condemned by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as breaching the neighbour’s sovereignty. In 1979, when the Soviets went into Afghanistan, it was the fag end of the Janata government, and Charan Singh was prime minister. Then too, India kept silent. As for the US bombing of Iraq in late 2002, India managed to remain outside the “coalition of the willing" led by president George Bush, despite war-mongering editorials in the Indian press egging India on to act as a “moral companion" of the US. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee kept his cool, despite intense pressure to send Indian troops. Later on, in 2014, the Manmohan Singh government at its fag end chose to not publicly rebuke Russia for annexing Crimea.

Now it is the Modi government’s turn to take a stand, and it has rightly chosen not to jump in with a moralistic stance. Depending upon one’s perspective, there is considerable validity in the Russian world-view that Nato pushed the envelope too far in Ukraine. In diplomacy, what counts is national interest. A public rebuke of Russia is not in India’s interest. A private strongly-worded missive might suffice. Indeed, word is that Indira Gandhi, an ally of the Soviets, was harsh on Russian foreign minister Andrei Gromyko in private, insisting that forces withdraw from Afghanistan and that this was critical for stability in the subcontinent. It is useful also to remember that China and Russia are in the neighbourhood, unlike the US, and one cannot change one’s neighbours. Moscow was India’s friend in need when the US threateningly sent its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal in 1971. As the cliché goes, there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.

Beyond the diplomatic tightrope walk, India will also face a stress test for its economy. Its recovery can be derailed by rising oil and commodity prices, raging inflation, falling business sentiment and stock markets, fleeing foreign portfolio flows and a weakening currency. The economy is in much better shape to withstand this stress than during the ‘taper tantrum’ of 2013. The scenario painted by the finance minister in her budget speech on 1 February has changed dramatically. “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen." Lenin’s quote seems apt for the world and India today.

Ajit Ranade is a Pune-based economist

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