Modi’s diplomacy puts India at the center of geopolitics

 It’s better to engage the world as to who we are rather than pleasing the world: S Jaishankar

By Hector Kenneth Kumar

As the Ukraine crisis shows no immediate scope of ending, New Delhi has emerged as a focal point in global diplomacy, given its non-aligned stand on the issue of sanctioning Russia. Heads of state of various nations have been making the trip to New Delhi in an effort to gauge which way the wind is blowing. From cajoling to the veiled threats, every trick of the diplomacy is being employed to woo India from its independent stand on various global issues of concern including the Ukraine war and its relation with Putin’s Russia.

It started with the visit of Japanese Prime minister Fumio Kishida to India in March and continues with the recently concluded visit of Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission. In between a host of the world, leaders have called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, including British PM Boris Johnson, and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

The European and American delegations had one primary agenda to get India to swing away from its non-aligned stand on Russia and to join the Western bloc against Vladimir Putin. The focus on India was best underlined by Leyen, who said “The key is that we want to bring forward this relationship, work on technology together, and bring India into our camp. That’s the main message of our visit.”

As the summer months draw out, the diplomatic efforts will intensify first with a visit by the PM Modi to Germany, Denmark, and France and later when he attends the all-important Quad summit in Tokyo in the last week of May. US President Joe Biden has met with his Indian counterpart a few times since the onset of the Ukraine conflict but has been unable to persuade India from digressing from its stated position, despite the not-so-subtle hints at sanctions for India’s purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia.

The Americans have also raised the bogey of India purchasing discounted Oil from Russia amidst a threat of sanctions. At the recently concluded virtual Quad meeting between Joe Biden and PM Modi, it was the Americans that told India that they needed to cut down reliance on Russian Oil. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki was quoted as saying after the meet: “The president conveyed very clearly that it is not in their interest to increase that.”

However, India refused to buy into the pressure with foreign minister S Jaishankar giving back in equal measure at a news conference the next day when he said, “Probably our total purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon.” Jaishankar’s words underlined India’s thinking that it would act in its own best interest. At the 2+2 meeting, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken raised another contentious issue when he said that the US was monitoring some recent “concerning developments” in India, including a rise in human rights abuses. The retort by Jaishankar, a seasoned diplomat, was sharp, “I would tell you that we also take our views on other people’s human rights situation, including that of the United States. So, we take up human rights issues when they arise in this country, especially when they pertain to our community.”

What is clear is that India will continue to hold its ground in an increasingly polarized geopolitical situation. India remains committed to its long-term relationship with Russia even as it takes its friendship with the United States seriously. The point best emphasized by the foreign minister in the recent Raisina Dialogues where he said, “We have to be confident in who we are. It’s better to engage with the world as to who we are rather than pleasing the world by being a pale imitation of what they are, the idea that we need to get approval from other quarters has to be put behind”

Despite the surround sound, the fact is that it is in the interest of the United States to keep India engaged, even as it makes an effort to wean away from India from its relationship with Russia. The deep-rooted ties were spoken off by Blinken in his recent testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee where he said, “I think this (India-US) partnership has the potential to be one of the most important and foundational relationships that we have going forward over the next decades. This has been a success story over multiple administrations in the US. President Biden has spent a lot of time directly engaged with PM Modi and India’s leadership. We have energized Quad that brings together India, US, Australia, and Japan together. Russia for India was, out of necessity, a partner of necessity, a partner of choice when we were not in a position to be a partner. Now we are. And we are investing in that effort.”

At the recent 2+2 dialogue, India also signed defense cooperation agreements with the U.S., negating the views of naysayers who claimed that India’s neutral stance on Ukraine would paralyze its relationship with the US. Expect that bonhomie to continue when Biden and Modi come face to face at the Quad summit.

India has publicly condemned reports of a massacre in Bucha by Russia and called for an early resolution of the conflict. The fact that Narendra Modi is one of the few world leaders who has spoken to both Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy puts India very much front and center of any effort to bring a resolution to the conflict.

The Biden administration knows this and sees India as a key partner in any effort to turn the tide. At the Quad summit Biden will push for more concessions from India in its stand on the conflict, while India will look to further its own interest. For both nations, China is the “Ghost in the room”. India’s relationship with its eastern neighbor deteriorated after China sought to occupy certain Indian positions in eastern Ladakh. Both sides know that their coming together is important to keep China on its toes especially given its aggressive stand in the South China Sea, and Eastern Ladakh.

The Chinese see the Quad as a confrontational bloc while India sees it as a grouping that seeks to protect the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific. However, off late, the Chinese have shown signs of watering down that stand especially vis-à-vis India. In late March Chinese FM Wang Yi made a visit to India in an effort to seek a thaw in relations.

Going forward India’s position in world diplomacy is only bound to enhance especially since it will take over the Presidency of the G20 in 2023, and host the summit in New Delhi. The IMF has projected the Indian economy to grow at 6.9 percent in 2023, making it a critical player in global stakes. What is clear is that India’s stock has risen manifold within the world and will continue to do so given its demographic dividend and positive policies. The world can no longer afford to look away.

(Hector Kenneth Kumar, a Chevening Scholar – 2001, is a senior journalist based in New Delhi. Twitter: @hk_365)

Images courtesy of (Image Courtesy: OpIndia) and provided

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