The prime minister’s remark that ‘today’s is not an era of war’ is not out of step with India’s position on the Ukraine war.
It isn’t uncommon that what is grabbed by headline hunters from summit talks is mundane to stir serious watchers of international politics. This was evident a few minutes into the opening remarks session of the bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin of Russia on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in the Uzbek city of Samarkand. Before proceeding to the bilateral talks, the two leaders made the opening remarks in presence of the media.
Sections of the western press, as also the Indian media, latched onto Modi’s quip that “today’s is not an era of war”. They appeared keen to see the prime minister’s remark, made sitting beside Putin, as a subtle shift in India’s tightrope walk on Ukraine conflict, now nearing seven months. Some western commentators, however, went to the extent of dubbing the remark “public shaming’’ of the Russian president. In its mild as well as extreme form, the response is fraught with misreading between the lines, and wrong on many counts. There are three basic problems in the sweeping conclusions made about Modi’s statement.
First, it’s not new. India has been advocating an end to violence and military hostilities since the very start of the Ukraine conflict, while diplomatically not singling out either side for blame. In a phone call with Putin last February, Modi appealed for “immediate cessation of violence’’ and urged the Russian leader to explore a diplomatic way out of the war. Then, despite abstention on votes censuring Russia, India’s explanatory notes circulated at the UN put its unease with the Russian military action in writing and emphasised the need for keeping the door open to a diplomatic solution. In doing so it batted for adherence to the sovereignty and territorial integrity principle vis-à-vis Ukraine.
Second, it wasn’t surprising. India’s prime minister recalled his phone conversations with Putin about New Delhi’s concerns with the war in Ukraine and the possible ways of deepening dialogue, diplomacy and democracy. That Putin wasn’t caught off guard by the remark was clear in how he replied, acknowledging India’s concerns and emphasising his own country’s efforts to end the war quickly. He went on to blame the war on the Ukrainian leadership’s refusal to continue negotiations and the insistence on “achieving their goals through military means on the battlefield”.
Moscow has been aware of concerns about the Ukraine war in New Delhi as well as in Beijing. In fact Putin’s reply to Modi’s remark was almost a repetition of what he had told Chinese President Xi Jinping only a few hours earlier: that Moscow understood Beijing’s concerns about the prolonged war.
Third, Modi’s remark doesn’t come close to what the western powers and a section of the western media have been talking India into doing: berating Russia for the war and backing the western sanctions regime against Moscow. India persists in its refusal to do so, in fact. For good reason: it’s seeking to grasp the space for strategic autonomy that its positioning as a swing state in the Russia-West duel provides.
India’s realistic assessment of the international order entails a tightrope walk which rules out exclusively aligning to any of the emergent camps. Instead of parking itself on one side, India’s diplomatic thrust is on identifying and protecting its interests by crafting a more rounded strategic outlook, especially as it concerns regional dynamics, the emerging dualism in its security challenges, continental as well as maritime, and economic factors.
This balancing game of assuaging the concerns of adversarial sides, however, makes camp enthusiasts jump the gun in seeing any moves and remarks in mutually exclusive terms. That simply is not the way India is recalibrating its strategic options and spreading diplomatic capital.
The next few months will further test India’s balancing act, especially in its neighbourhood. In the meantime, India has assumed the rotational presidency of the SCO and launched preparations for the next summit. By the time it takes place in 2023, the region may have to grapple with more challenges, new and old.