‘Abstention’ is not an option on the world stage; US President comments on India's shaky stand

As a leader among the world’s nations, a weak-kneed stance aimed at not irritating Russia amounts to surrendering moral high ground.
Image used for representational purposes only
Image used for representational purposes only

US President Joe Biden’s recent statement to business leaders, that India was “somewhat shaky” in acting against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, has again raised the international debate on India’s international role as an ‘abstainer’. In the short run, India is being accused of politics of opportunism; in the long term, there may be serious consequences for her trade and business interests for this ‘neither-here, nor-there’ policy.

Soon after Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on 26 February, a wave of condemnation followed against the violation of the East European country’s sovereignty. India, however, is not in step.
On 26 February, when the UN Security Council, in an emergency meeting, took up the Ukraine invasion, India and China stood alone in ‘abstaining’ from condemning Russia. The resolution was vetoed, and it moved to the United Nations General Assembly. Here too, while 141 countries condemned the invasion, India stood with 35 nations who ‘abstained’.

Though India’s permanent UN representative T.S. Trimurti said it was “deeply disturbed” by Russia’s actions, India again abstained from two other procedural votes on Ukraine. And finally, on Wednesday, it was another abstention from India – the 5th one – when a resolution co-sponsored by Belarus, Syria and North Korea to consider the ‘humanitarian crisis in Ukraine’, failed to make it in the UN Security Council.

As a leader among the world’s nations, a weak-kneed stance aimed at not irritating Russia amounts to surrendering moral high ground. We are in a post-colonial era where physical wars of annexation are supposed to be in the past. A ‘non-response’ – neither sanctioning Russia nor condemning the bullying of a smaller neighbour – is indeed tragic.

The non-aligned overhang

India’s defense for its stance is two-fold. Russia is India’s largest defence supplier and today accounts for 49% of her military hardware. Second, as a carry-forward of the non-aligned movement (NAM), India is seeking to draw an equidistant position from both the NATO countries and the Russian bloc.

Ukraine ‘abstention’ seems to be a continuum of old Nehruvian positions, when India leaned in favour of breaking down the old colonial world. When Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, she abstained on a resolution in the UN General Assembly that sought to condemn the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Earlier, when Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, India and Nehru stood with the USSR in the UN Security Council.

These positions are today caught in a time warp. The world has changed hugely since a group of developing nations set the agenda for a non-aligned movement against western colonialism and economic imperialism in the 1960s and 70s. The NAM, founded by Jawaharlal Nehru, Josip Tito of Yugoslavia and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, had in the 1970s looked to the Soviet Union as a bulwark against the western powers.

As the 20th century came to a close, much of the raison d’etre for the pro-Soviet NAM bloc had evaporated. Colonialism, as we know it, was in retreat and the Soviet Union had disintegrated; and a weaker Russia had emerged as a state capitalist country with goals and machinations that matched the US, and the Western powers.

Connection weakens

India’s ‘dependence’ on Russia too is more perception than fact. The ground situation for India has vastly changed from what it was three decades ago. Though Russia is still India’s largest military hardware supplier, the Stockholm Peace Research Institute estimates that India’s defence imports from Russia have declined from a high of 70% of its needs to just 49.4%.

Meanwhile, the US has upgraded India to the status of a “major defence partner” by the US in 2016. This has led to New Delhi negotiating a commitment for hardware sales worth $20 billion, and agreements to enhance the bilateral sharing of bases, geospatial data, and transfer of high-tech military technology. Other defence sources include Israel and even Ukraine, the latter supplying spares for India’s sizable fleet of AN-32 military transport aircraft.

There is a new geo-political axis too: the drawing together of China and Russia in a military-economic bloc as the US goes aggressively after Premier Xi Jinping’s aggressive nationalism. China’s regional ambitions in the Pacific and Asia are partly being countered by the quad alliance of US, India, Japan and Australia.

India’s direct interests are at stake as China pushes forward on India’s borders. In this jockeying, Russia can hardly be expected to back India’s regional interests. In the fast-changing balance of forces, India needs to steer an independent course if it wants to be a major actor on the world stage. New post-Cold War blocs are being formed; a dormant NATO is now in full fury. We are on the cusp of Ukraine blowing up into an international war. India can hardly afford to hang on to Russian coattails and to an ‘abstainer’ mentality.

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The New Indian Express