The present BJP-led government is taking a leaf out of Arun Jaitley’s playbook in September 2003. Jaitley, then commerce minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet, persuaded his Chinese counterpart, Lu Fuyuan, at the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) fifth ministerial conference in Cancun to become the frontman for the Group of 21 (G21) developing nations on an issue critical to them—export subsidies.
Behind the scenes, India remained the resource and intellectual powerhouse of the G21 throughout the ministerial meeting in Cancun. Famous for their drafting abilities in English, Indian officials wrote position papers and documents, which the Chinese minister faithfully presented on behalf of G21.
When ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) rich nations approached Jaitley with compromise proposals, he disingenuously blamed China for the G21’s persistence but offered to soften such obduracy. It was a masterstroke to gain concessions within the WTO.
Similarly, India is the unseen hand at recent peace meetings to end the nearly 18-month war between Russia and Ukraine. The most recent effort to bring peace was in Jeddah last weekend. Before that, an effort was underway in Copenhagen in June. India was present at both meetings. South Block, seat of the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office, did not even acknowledge the first of the two conclaves.
Sanjay Verma, the country’s second-most important career diplomat in the civil service after the foreign secretary, was vital to the deliberations. His attendance in Copenhagen was secret, later media leaks notwithstanding. In the month and a half that the peace efforts took to move from Copenhagen to Jeddah, South Block decided to upgrade the Indian presence from its Secretary (West) to National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, about a fortnight before the Copenhagen peace conference, which has now led the way to last weekend’s gathering in Jeddah. The crown prince and the prime minister will again discuss peace in Ukraine when they meet next month in New Delhi at the G20 Summit. In May last year, about three months after Russia launched its military operation against Ukraine, Modi met the prime ministers of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden at their second India-Nordic Summit in Copenhagen. Separately, Modi held extensive talks with the prime minister of Denmark, Mette Frederiksen, who hosted that summit.
The Nordic Summit convinced its European participants, who are in the backyard of Russia, as it were, that India cannot be pushed into condemning Russia for the war in Ukraine. The summit’s joint statement said that “the Nordic prime ministers reiterated their strong condemnation of the unlawful and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine by Russian forces.” India pointedly dissociated itself from their stand. Instead, there was agreement among Modi and the Nordic leaders only in expressing “their serious concern about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. They unequivocally condemned civilian deaths in Ukraine. They reiterated the need for an immediate cessation of hostilities … Both sides agreed to remain closely engaged on the issue.”
For a big part, the peace conference in Copenhagen on June 24, and Verma’s presence at the meeting, were the results of the agreement that India and Nordic leaders would remain “closely engaged on the issue”. Shorn of the usual homilies at such peace conferences, Doval’s address in Jeddah was an important marker for the next stage of peace efforts in Ukraine. What confronted attendees who came to Saudi Arabia was a two-fold challenge, he said: “Resolution of the situation and softening the consequences of the conflict.” What would have been de rigueur for a National Security Adviser in this context was to use the words “resolution of the conflict”. Implicit in the choice of Doval’s words is India’s view that a resolution of the conflict in Ukraine is not possible at this stage. What is possible is a remission of the continuing damage being caused by the conflict. He was suggesting a modest agenda for the next steps in the various peace initiatives which are already on the table. Doval referred to them.
It is clear from Verma’s initial attendance at the Copenhagen peace conclave and the subsequent Indian decision to upgrade its representation at the Jeddah talks to the level of Doval that Modi has overcome any hesitations he may have had earlier about joining efforts for dialogue and diplomacy which are currently dominated by those who are unfriendly to Russia. Doval’s counterpart from the White House, Jake Sullivan, is an important example. Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to the president of Ukraine, is another. Verma had extensive talks with Yermak in Kyiv on July 13.
During several internal meetings in South Block in recent months, those in the government who want India to either launch its own peace effort or join other multilateral peace initiatives have convinced Modi that such activism can cause no harm. On the contrary, they argued that it is necessary to smoothen things during the G20 Summit.
Like in the case of Jaitley in Cancun, the new Indian approach is to take another leaf out of India’s external affairs history. During the Korean war 70 years ago, India initiated a unique peace effort, which became a success. Its main feature was patience.
The first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, did not put forward any concrete peace plan on the table. Instead, India engaged in continuous discussions with the warring sides, also drawing in like-minded countries which favoured dialogue and diplomacy on the Korean peninsula. This ensured that negotiations carried on while the fighting was also going on side by side.
In the end, there was armistice in the peninsula in which India played the most important role. This is South Block’s new follow up to Modi’s famous statement to Russian President Vladimir Putin: “This is not an era of war.” This is the only viable peace approach in Ukraine too.