Indian foreign policy at crossroads: Are India’s services really in demand?

Reports indicate that its suggestions are not finding favour among its partners and, far from raising India’s global stature, strains with its partners are rising

Indian foreign policy at crossroads: Are India’s services really in demand?

Nilova Roychaudhury

There has been a concerted effort from sources within the Indian government recently to suggest that the services of the Indian leadership are globally much in demand, particularly to mediate in the hostilities in Ukraine. The reality however, is that when asked, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and even Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was not aware of such efforts.

The last round of peace talks between Russia and Ukraine took place in Istanbul. Despite positive indications, these have not fructified into any meaningful resolution. Contrary to the hyperactive suggestions that New Delhi’s stature has been enhanced globally by the government’s approach to the Ukraine crisis, countries like Turkey, Israel, and China have shown interest in mediating a resolution and are better placed to host talks to end the military morass there. Given Ukraine’s increasing disappointment with the prolonged conflict and India’s refusal to weigh in decisively against Russia, it is unlikely Indian mediation skills will be called into service soon.

It is right for any country to conduct its foreign policy in its ‘enlightened self-interest’ and do what best suits its interests. Perhaps even to buy sanctioned petroleum at reduced prices to shore up its national reserves, as India has done, from Russia. But it should not then expect its partners, who have placed those sanctions, to find those actions favourable.

India requires around five million barrels of crude oil daily, or 1800 million barrels annually, of which around 85% is imported. Despite pressure from its Western partners to isolate Moscow, the Indian government maintains that it will continue to buy cheap Russian petroleum, in national interest. India has already bought “three-four days’ supply and this will continue,” Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said. India has bought around 20 million barrels of Russian oil since the Ukraine war began on February 24, more than the 16 million barrels of Russian oil it bought in 2021. India is also moving to raise its wheat exports, to capitalise on the shortfall caused in the global supply chain. Ukraine and Russia account for 25% of the global wheat trade.

India’s ‘commitment’ against the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been called “somewhat shaky” by US President Joe Biden, who sent Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland to explain that India must stand against “autocracies like Russia and China.”

Visiting US Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economics Daleep Singh was more blunt and said there would be “consequences” for any country trying to “backfill sanctions” imposed on Russia. Singh’s comments and a reportedly undiplomatic exchange on similar issues between Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss came just ahead of Lavrov’s visit to Delhi.

While New Delhi may believe it is doing well by walking a very tight rope as it finesses the issue of bypassing increasingly stringent Western economic sanctions on Russia, many international voices have urged caution. The Indian government has been criticized for sacrificing legality and its principles to pragmatic realpolitik. “Although India may be right in thinking that it is too big and too important a player for Western powers to forsake, Delhi’s narrow focus on “realpolitik” is not without costs. China’s “historic” claims on bits of Indian territory are not so different from Russia’s in Ukraine,” the Economist cautioned, while other voices have questioned India’s democratic credentials.

Another recent visitor with whom the foreign policy establishment was curt was Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi who, unlike Lavrov, was denied a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Coming for an unannounced visit, after dropping in at Islamabad and Kabul, Wang sought to restore ‘business as usual’ while firming up Indian support for Russia and strengthening the Russia India-China trilateral. He was taken aback when told, unequivocally, that it could not be ‘business as usual’ between India and China because the sanctity of the boundary, or Line of Actual Control, had been breached, unilaterally, by Beijing, which had overturned long-standing bilateral agreements to maintain peace and tranquillity along the LAC.

While facing flak from its QUAD and other western partners for buying Russian crude and not directly condemning the Russian assault on Ukraine, India is looking to further its neighbourhood policy goals, by providing a cash and fuel-strapped Sri Lanka, in acute economic distress, with fuel and assistance in the hope that it can wean Colombo away from Beijing’s close embrace, which was largely responsible for the current economic mess. Stepping up as a good neighbour, India does not want to let the opportunity afforded by the Lankan economic crisis to slip away and is actively pushing to ensure that it meets all its commitments, and more, to keep Beijing suitably distant.

India most clearly articulated its stand on the hostilities in Ukraine when Jaishankar informed Parliament that India stood for peace. “We are strongly against the conflict, we believe that no solution can be arrived at by shedding blood and at the cost of innocent lives,” Jaishankar said. Coming a day after T.R. Tirumurti, India’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations, speaking at the UN Security Council on Tuesday “unequivocally” condemned what he called the “deeply disturbing” killing of civilians in Bucha and supported the call for an independent UN inquiry into the killings. Although it did not name Russia, the language was the strongest India has used at public forums, clearly against Moscow.

However, India, which has consistently abstained on all UN resolutions, for or against Russia, and has urged an immediate return to diplomacy and dialogue while emphasising that respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states is an essential element of the international order, isn’t finding many takers for its position. Modi has, in his conversations with global leaders and those of Ukraine and Russia, urged an immediate cease-fire, but with lessening dividends, as hostilities enter their eighth week. Reports suggest that its suggestions are not finding favour among its partners and, far from raising India’s global stature, strains with its partners are rising.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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