A recent report in a prominent American daily focussed on the possibility of India playing a significant role in seeking to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table. The report came on the eve of the visit of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s to Moscow (November 7-8). It led to comment in the Indian media, both sober and exuberant, on how Indian diplomacy since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in February 2022, had deftly put India in a position to promote peace between the warring parties.
For the ruling dispensation’s supporters, a mediatory Indian role in the Ukraine war would naturally serve as a great vindication of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal position as a world leader and his government’s successful handling of India’s external interests.
When the G20 presidency is in the picture
That Mr. Modi is drawing public attention to his efforts to advance India’s global status and reputation is clear from the enormous emphasis he is giving to India assuming the G20 presidency on December 1, 2022. In a speech on November 8 to mark the release of the logo, theme and website of the Indian presidency, he said: “You can imagine what a big opportunity has come before the country in the ‘Amrit kal’ of Independence. It is a matter of pride for every Indian; it is a matter of increasing one’s pride.” He went on to add, “…this summit is just not a diplomatic meeting. India sees this as a new responsibility for itself. India sees this as the world’s faith in itself.” The question is whether he would consider the G20 presidency as a “new” responsibility to contribute to a resolution of the Ukraine conflict.
He may be actively encouraged to do so by the West. The idea, though seductive, is full of pitfalls. It would mark a departure from the cautious, and largely successful, approach that India has pursued till now on the Ukraine war. India has made its disapproval of Russia’s action clear even if it has refrained from voting against it on substantive resolutions in United Nations forums, including the Security Council. The maximum extent that India has gone to is of Mr. Modi openly telling Russian President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand (September 2022) that the present age was not one of war.
India has advocated a return to diplomacy and dialogue. India has intervened in specific cases with Russia such as to prevent it from endangering the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant (in Ukraine) or to allow the export of Ukraine foodgrains. But all these steps are far removed from attempts to mediate or bring the parties to the negotiating table.
Lessons from the Rajiv Gandhi era
If Mr. Modi or his advisers are tempted to accept western encouragement to go in the direction of mediation, they would do well to reflect on the lessons learnt by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in intervening with the Soviet leadership, at the prodding of the United States, to end the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. As highlighted in the book, The Great Game in Afghanistan: Rajiv Gandhi, General Zia and The Unending War, India-U.S. diplomacy on Afghanistan is a “story of India’s diplomatic defeat and American duplicity” (p17). India itself wanted a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan from the time it took place. It conveyed its assessments privately to the Soviets. However, it is one matter to do so suo motu and quite another to undertake an initiative on some other country’s behalf.
During Rajiv Gandhi’s time, Indian policymakers felt that Indian interests would be best served by the establishment of a broad-based neutral government in Kabul, and the U.S. too gave New Delhi the illusion that it wanted the same.
Another implicit aspect of the bargain was that the U.S. would put the brakes on Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme. It became clear though that the U.S. was not interested in either; nor did it want India to play an active diplomatic role in ending the Afghanistan crisis. It merely desired Indian influence to be brought to bear on the Soviets to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan. When the U.S.’s positions became clear to Rajiv Gandhi, India-U.S. ties, which were witnessing some warmth, suffered.
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The current era with its compulsions for India is far removed from that of the 1980s. But the basic principles which govern the game of nations do not change. As in the 1980s, so now, the U.S. and the West in general wish India to use such leverage as it may have with Mr. Putin to abandon the war and negotiate with Ukraine. They are no doubt aware that Indian equities with Ukraine are practically non-existent. Hence, despite whatever they may say to India about its growing role in the world and how its global prestige would rise, all they really want is India’s intervention with Mr. Putin to change course.
Perils of going beyond this exhortation
It is certainly appropriate for India to point to the great and growing global difficulties because of the Russian action. Mr. Jaishankar was correct when he said in Moscow on November 8, after his meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, and, in his presence that “the global economy is simply too inter-dependent for a significant conflict anywhere, not to have major consequences elsewhere. We are seeing growing concerns on energy and food security from the conflict that are coming on top of severe stresses created by two years of COVID. The Global South, especially, is feeling the pain acutely.” It would also be correct for India to keep emphasising that the way out is through dialogue and diplomacy. It would, however, be counterproductive to go beyond such exhortations. This is not only because mediation efforts, if undertaken, may fail but also because they would expose the true extent of India’s global influence and the limitations of personal chemistry between leaders in influencing events.
Leaders and diplomats, like angels, must always tread lightly.
Vivek Katju is a former Indian diplomat