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Not every external affairs minister gets a chance to demonstrate that he excels at his job by getting his interlocutors abroad to shift their stance, on an Indian position that matters to them, from one of thinly veiled hostility to acceptance, if not admiration.

India’s steadfast refusal to condemn Russia’s ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine that commenced in the last week of February had been hard for the Western powers to stomach. US Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs Daleep Singh issued, when he visited India in April this year, a barely diplomatic warning that New Delhi should not expect Russia to come to its aid, in case China violates the Line of Actual Control once again.

What he had left unsaid spoke louder. India had benefitted, presumably, from America’s signal intelligence during the Galwan standoff and subsequent tensions across the length of the LAC. The undertone was unmistakable: refusal to toe the line on Ukraine could endanger such valuable cooperation from the West. New Delhi chose to be the bigger party, and ignored these contretemps, and continued not only its refusal to condemn Russia but also its import of Russian crude and coal in ever increasing quantities.

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Even as the West imposed sanctions on Russia, India decided to increase its trade with that country. India’s crude oil imports from Russia went up by 286% while coal imports surged by over 345% in the January-April 2022 period. About 7.5% of India’s fuel needs (crude oil, coal, natural gas, etc.) in April 2022 were sourced from Russia compared to 2% or less in many of the previous years, said a report. Since then, Russia has replaced Iraq as India’s top supplier of crude.

India is a longstanding leader of countries that articulate Third World causes. So, when a number of African nations also refused to take sides against Russia, the West had all the more reason to rue India’s stance. While no one accused India of leading a pro-Russia bloc along with China, the hostility in the Western media to India’s stance was palpable. The more softspoken commentators put India’s stance down to India’s dependence on Russia for arms, ammunition and parts.

India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar never got tempted into the moral discourse in which the NATO allies sought to frame the Ukraine debate. Nor did Jaishankar hark back to the history of India’s warm relations with Moscow. It is India’s diplomatic success that our external articulation makes India’s need to protect its 1.4 billion people from the vagaries of high oil prices, rather than sentiment or morality, speak in defence of India’s position.

India finessed its position by voting against Russia on, one, a Russian proposal for a secret ballot on a vote on Ukraine at the UN and, two, on a proposal to let the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky address the UN. India keeps calling for a negotiated end to hostilities in Ukraine and has opposed any use of nuclear arms — although the threat to use nuclear arms was more a creation of the media that interpreted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement that Russia has the capacity to punish Ukraine in a manner that the world has never seen to mean a nuclear attack, than it was any overt threat by the Russian leader to nuke Ukraine.

Today, there is grudging acceptance of India’s stance that it would take whatever position is in the best interest of its people, regardless of what external expectations are of India’s conduct. Most recently, US Charge d’Affaires in New Delhi Elizabeth Jones said the US understood India’s reasons for its stand on Russia vis-à-vis Ukraine. The German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, currently on a visit to India, said Germany understands the reasons for India’s stand on oil imports from Russia and its opposition to the price cap on Russian crude.

Now, a country’s stand on external affairs is rooted in domestic politics and decided, ultimately, by the political leadership. Once the basic stance is defined, it is up to the foreign minister and his team at the ministry to articulate its implications and nuances in ways that make sense to the world, as well as to the domestic audience.

It is not possible or necessary for the Prime Minister or his colleagues to state, in the bluntest of terms, the nation’s core concerns. Such a course could create needless friction. So, neither Jaishankar nor the PM says that India understands that the West needs India to build itself up as a powerful counterweight to China, and that New Delhi can use this factor to its advantage while wresting assorted concessions from the West that sees China as the rising strategic rival. India understands but does not vocalise China’s need for Russia to continue as a strategic node of power, so as not to become the sole focus of America’s hostile attentions. New Delhi also understands but does not crow about Russia’s desire to see China’s rise being restrained, so as not to lose Moscow’s strategic salience in the world. This is to India’s benefit. This is why Russia will sell to India its most sophisticated missile defence system, the S400, and India will buy it, against the wishes of the West.

This strategy of staying non-aligned, and using the dynamics of relations among the dominant powers of the world to maintain and shore up New Delhi’s own strategic autonomy, goes back to Nehruvian times, when the dominant power centres were Washington DC and Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the era of seeming unipolarity of military power and burgeoning multipolarity of economic power, India’s political leadership recalibrated India’s core policy of shoring up strategic autonomy, to meet the exigencies of the evolving global power dynamics.

This has carried forward into the current phase. A rising tide raises all boats, but it is only when the tide goes out do you discover who all have been swimming naked, Warren Buffett is fond of saying. The Ukraine war has caused multiple tides to recede, leaving many exposed. New Delhi, however, retains its dignity. We should thank foreign minister S. Jaishankar and his team at the ministry for saving India the blushes.

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