There are points of ferment in world politics when one is tempted to define the zeitgeist of the current or the emerging world order. Many times the tumult is cast in a way that it takes the form of a Hegelian contest of ideas and the systems representing them; sometimes even stating that one of them is prevailing over the other.
The recent decades show that such claims have been fraught with the risk of being belied too soon. American political thinker Francis Fukuyama’s famous ‘end of history’ claim in a 1989 essay – equating the end of the cold war with the eventual victory of liberal democracy – ran out of steam by the turn of the present century. A chastened Fukuyama had to moderate such triumphalism in his later writings – sample the mellow tone of his Liberalism and Its Discontents published last month. Perhaps this followed the realisation that there are many turning points when history “refused to turn”, as British historian APJ Taylor had once put it.
The war in Ukraine has quickened attempts to place events and varying responses within overarching ideas and patterns. As is often the case in such explanations, binaries have come into play. The most common among them is to see the war in eastern Europe as a contest between the strongmen-led autocratic regimes and the liberal democracies of the west. Even if a bit stretched and inaccurate on some counts, this juxtaposition has been a running thread in a section of commentary.
The talk about the rise of the strongman in international politics preceded the Ukraine war; some even trace this phenomenon to trends seen two decades ago. In his recent book The Age of the Strong Man, Gideon Rachman, the foreign affairs editor of The Financial Times, says, “Since 2000, the rise of the strongman has become a central feature of global politics. In capitals as diverse as Moscow, Beijing, Delhi, Ankara, Manila, Riyadh, Brasilia, self-styled strongmen – and so far they are all men – have risen to power.”
Washington and London could be added to that list because Rachman’s book has also reflected on the tenure of Donald Trump in the US and the rise of Boris Johnson in Britain as examples.
More significantly, however, Rachman portrays Vladimir Putin as the archetype of the strongman leadership. That is also seen in how Putinism has become a byword for the autocratic tilt and the personality cult in power politics. The use of the term also entails clubbing together features that define a distinct construct in world politics. In India, some political commentators such as Pratap Bhanu Mehta “anti-westernism” as a part of “a cluster of political tendencies that are congealing across the world that might be described as Putinism”. But these wider and mostly simplistic categories, as used by Mehta or Rachman, run into some problems and blind spots as well.
The most obvious problem is that such commentary, in the process of attributing a broad set of inclinations to the worldview of strongman regimes, reduces the complex and dynamic power play in world politics to ideological duels. So, to begin with, the attitudes of a variety of strongman regimes are coalesced as “anti-westernism”, which by default is also seen as having an “anti-liberal order” undercurrent. This, however, acts as premises to offer other frames of divisions, mostly at the cost of specificity and lacking grasp of distinct factors and milieu.
A common thread, for instance, in such exercises is to look at global politics as a simplistic face-off between democratic order and autocratic regimes – the latter also includes strongman-led elected government. The limitations of such categories can be a matter of separate inquiry, but they certainly obstruct a rounded view of foreign policy and a realistic assessment of strategic options.
For instance, Mehta paints a silhouette of strongman-led regimes against which he loses sight of the specifics of India’s strategic considerations. The India’s attempt at exercising strategic autonomy as “veneer of sophistication” is followed by what he sees as an insidious outbreak of sympathy for Putin among the country’s diplomatic, military and economic elite. Mehta’s formulaic attempt at placing India’s diplomatic response to the Ukraine war under the rubric of an ideological affinity between the current regime in India and Putin becomes a case of force-fitting into premises of an assertion rather than aiding understanding.
In many ways, such commentary borders on a wilful indifference to a range of strategic and historical factors. In, Mehta accepts the vital role of the specific interests of countries, but soon gets quixotic enough to find stands taken by India and China “appalling”. Moreover, if seen with his past reflections on strategic thought in India – or rather the lack of it, some of his current assertions may either confound or need a different decoding.
One wonders whether what Mehta dubs as “veneer of sophistication” could be also seen as part of India’s constant attempt at finding its strategic feet. A number of factors guiding India’s neutral position on the war in Ukraine can be assumed to be obvious to most commentators, including Mehta.
There have been several explanations, before and after the ongoing war, of India’s need to address security interests. In short, these why India needs to actively engage with at least two big powers to address twin challenges: continental security threats in central Asia, especially after the Taliban takeover, and the maritime security threats posed by the third big power China in the Indo-Pacific. Countering China wouldn’t require only strategic ties with the US but also a need to ensure Russia isn’t alienated to a degree that Beijing becomes Moscow’s only option in Asia. This reasoning is supplemented by a range of other factors, including the more obvious aspect of long military supply links with Russia.
Events of the last two months may prod a revisit to Mehta’s published in 2009 which reflected on the past and contemporary frameworks of India’s foreign policy while hinting at its possible trajectories in the future. In the concluding note, he remarked that India was more likely to use neutral positioning in an effort to make itself one of “few areas of great power agreement”, as professor Sisir Gupta had once explained. Thus, Mehta saw little possibility of India trying to become what strategic studies scholar Ashley Tellis called a “swing state”. It’s interesting, however, there is also a view that the current Ukraine war presented India with a moment when “it’s the most sought-after swing state in the contemporary international system”, as professor Happymon Jacob, School of International Studies, JNU, .
More significantly, India’s clear indifference to the “swing state” moment could be seen as a continued effort at putting strategic autonomy into practice. “By refusing fully to ally with either side and yet maintaining good relations with both, New Delhi may have finally experimented with the tenets of strategic autonomy that it has long professed but struggled to practice. Contemporary Indian diplomacy is a textbook example of a swing state that refuses to swing either way,” Jacob writes before giving a glimpse of the challenges awaiting beyond.
Mehta’s essay had also examined strategic thinker George Tanham’s book Indian Strategic Thought (1992) – which identified the absence of strategic thought in India’s foreign policymaking. Mehta mentioned that Tanham noted the quest for international recognition meant a focus on pursuing status and symbolism in Indian foreign policy, “rather than a hard-nosed assessment of interests”. In the first decade of the current century, a realisation of such glaring limitations led the Ministry of External Affairs to commission a full-fledged two-year study on the defining elements of India’s national interest.
In a different setting of geopolitical realities a decade ago, the study could have placed priorities differently but the need for a harder look was accepted. More than a decade later, aggravated security threats would need a far more realistic recalibration. That’s an aspect that couldn’t just be a matter of “sophistication’’.
Mehta’s attempt at placing India’s response to the Ukraine war in the overarching frame of its links with the ideological tilt of the government doesn’t take into account even recent diplomatic history. It would be relevant to recall that following Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014, the UPA government led by Dr Manmohan Singh didn’t join western powers in condemning the annexation. In fact, India’s decision by Russian president Vladimir Putin in the Russian parliament for its objective assessment of Moscow’s role in Ukraine.
The then national security adviser Shivshankar Menon had stated that the Ukraine issue was related to “legitimate Russian and other interests” which call for discussion and resolution. Without aligning with any side, India had stressed the need for a diplomatic solution. Today, a continuity, rather than a hiatus, can be seen in how a new regime in New Delhi has also the need for a “diplomatic way out of the war”, a dialogue between Ukraine and Russia, and an “immediate cessation of violence” in Ukraine. This is supplemented by the fact that despite its abstentions at the UN vote, the explanatory notes put India’s unease with the war in writing – T S Tirumurti, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, reiterated the need for keeping the door for diplomatic solution open.
On the question of condemnation, Mehta shows exasperation with India’s, as well as China’s, stand of seeing little utility in condemnatory tone targeting Russia, and instead using less public channels to get the message across to Moscow. While India has condemned civilian killings in the ongoing Ukraine war, it hasn’t resorted to blame games. This approach can be seen as “historically cautious neutrality”, as Stanly Johny .
This reminds of what Jawaharlal Nehru said in Parliament in 1957, the year following the Soviet military intervention in Hungary. His statement was formed by two concerns. Even though the Nehru government belatedly grew critical of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, Nehru was careful about not joining western powers in their condemnatory tone. Scholar Swapna Kona Nayudu, associate at Harvard University Asia Centre, , “With the West, led by the US, he (Nehru) maintained a firm position that allowed no condemnation of Russia. Nehru sought to apply the Gandhian method of leaving the door open.” Historian Ramachandra Guha notes later studies about Nehru sending private messages to urge Moscow to withdraw troops. So the use of “less public channels” of communication, an expression that seems to irk Mehta in the current situation, isn’t a new suggestion either.
Nehru’s decision was also guided by what Nayadu calls his “utter disdain for the West’s censure of Russia because Britain and France had simultaneously attacked Egypt in what came to be known as the Suez Canal Crisis”.
In Parliament, Nehru’s statement explained the government’s decision to not take a condemnatory line. “There are many things happening in the world from year to year and day to day, which we have disliked intensely. We have not condemned them…because when one is trying to solve a problem, it doesn’t help calling names and condemning,” Nehru argued.
Johny points out that this line was largely followed by India in responding to “Soviet interventions in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) or Afghanistan or the American invasion of Iraq (2003)”.
So, a considerable degree of continuity could be seen in how, over more than seven decades, India has responded to moments of great power tussles or unilateral military interventions in different parts of the world.
An analysis of the reasoning behind policy variables can possibly explain the contextual nature of India’s “cautious prudence” – a phrase that Mehta earlier used to describe a defining feature of how India conducts its foreign relations.
That, however, would need a more balanced look, something that has been missing in recent attempts at marking patterns of state behavior. In many ways, Rachman’s eagerness to fit India’s case into the global frame of the rise of strongman-led autocracies becomes one-dimensional. He is swayed by a particular set of accounts of recent events which don’t leave much space for understanding the milieu in which they are taking place.
In the process, the ideas that form his material for the chapter on strongman politics in India are never analysed as contested in the book, and the versions of events are never approached as disputed. While that’s clear in how he fleetingly addresses a number of themes that are meant to neatly fit into his narrative thesis, it wouldn’t be surprising if he evokes the “Putin archetype” template to view India’s response to the war in Ukraine.
A stream of recent commentary on the Ukraine war is trying to erect Hegelian binaries of contest, ignoring how shifting sands of global politics had little patience for them in the past. The risk of seeing the current tumult as a duel against strongman politics, with Putinism as the byword for it, lies in its inaccuracy as well as in the possibility of spawning other divides in its wake. In the process, the details have always been in short supply, if not the casualty of the process itself.
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