The war in Ukraine is indeed on the minds of German Chancellor Olaf Sholtz and French President Emmanuel Macron, and on the minds of the leaders of Denmark, Sweden, Norway. But the conflict now raging in the European continent is not going to be a little more than an irritant to visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Neither Mr Scholtz nor Mr Macron are great enthusiasts about a boycott of Russia and President Vladimir Putin the way that US President Joe Biden, British PM Boris Johnson and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen may be. Mr Scholtz may not have pressed the issue of India condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine beyond a point. But there can be little doubt that Germany, France and every other European country is forthright in their condemnation of Russia.
But India is not really under any pressure even though Ursula von der Leyen and Boris Johnson have tried and failed to get India to condemn Russia. India has withstood the pressure and persuasion of the Europeans and Americans quite well, and the Prime Minister can take credit for it. But India has been pressing hard for a strong position in the Indo-Pacific, which satisfies New Delhi because it is indirectly directed against China. The Europeans are not friends with Russia because there is no meeting of minds there, but European leaders are realistic enough to acknowledge that China is an important economic player in global markets. They recognise India as a potential big player too and that is why they keen to woo India.
The Europeans would not go beyond polite words to speak out against China in the context of the India-China conflict and confrontation. This will no doubt irritate Indian leaders, but they must put up with it. Mr Modi, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and external affairs minister S. Jaishankar will no doubt be annoyed by Europe’s lukewarm criticism of China and that too indirectly. The positions of German’s Olaf Scholtz and France’s Emmanuel Macron are complex. They condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, something that India would not, but they also know that they must calibrate their moves against Russia.
India enjoys the status of a spectator, as Mr Modi had acknowledged in his press statement in Berlin on Monday. So, the India-German statement included a slightly elaborate reference to the Indo-Pacific, which pleases India, but their real concern is the war next door in Ukraine. Mr Modi and his team — this is the first that the Prime Minister is flanked by the finance minister and the external affairs minister — is interested in getting bilateral agreements on key aspects, including business, technology and investments.
Mr Modi, however, had to acknowledge that the war in Ukraine is having a negative impact on the global economy as in the rise in the prices of oil and food. The tepid remarks clearly showed that Mr Modi had nothing emphatic to say about the war in Ukraine: “India is deeply concerned by the humanitarian impact of this conflict. We have sent humanitarian aid for Ukraine on our behalf. We are also trying to help other friendly countries through food exports, oil supplies and economic assistance.” The heart of the matter for Prime Minister Modi was: “…Germany has decided to help India’s green growth plans with an additional development assistance of 10 billion euros by 2030. For this, I thank Germany and Chancellor Scholtz.” He also said: “India’s skilled workers and professionals have benefited the economies of many countries. I am confident that the Comprehensive Migration and Mobility Partnership Agreement between India and Germany will facilitate the movement of people between the two countries.”
The German point of view had obviously a different emphasis in the joint statement: “Through its attack on Ukraine, Russia violated fundamental principles of international law. The war and the brutal attacks against the civilian population in Ukraine show an unrestrained Russia has been violating the fundamental principles of the UN Charter.” Chancellor Scholz then added: “I repeat my appeal to Putin to end the war, to end the senseless killing.” German economics minister Robert Habeck of the Green Party said Germany would back an immediate ban on all Russian oil and gas imports, though that would be a burden for Germany.
So, Germany was dealing with Mr Modi and India at a different level, even as it was taking a vital decision on the war in Ukraine and its relations with Russia.
The story will remain the same as Mr Modi travels to Denmark, where he will speak at the India-Nordic Summit in Copenhagen, and then on to France. It will be argued that Mr Modi is only pursuing India’s national interest. He is of course doing that. Whether India is able to rise above its national interest and show concern about the crisis in Europe remains a moot question. Of course, the Indian strategy pundits would say that it is none of India’s business to be concerned about the war in Ukraine because that is Europe’s concern. They would argue that India’s self-absorption is justified because no other country would spare any thought for India. The Narendra Modi government has latched on to this principle and it has raised navel-gazing into a supreme art.
The question, however, is this: What should India be doing as a middle-rung world leader? Should it be doing more than uttering platitudes on diplomacy and dialogue as the only way out of the war in Ukraine, or should it take initiative, suggest a concrete plan, either at the United Nations or at the G-20 meeting next month? The efforts may come to nought as was seen when Mr Macron, and then Chancellor Scholtz, travelled to Moscow. Even unwilling leaders like the German Chancellor and the French President would be compelled to join the others in a war against Russia. It is true that neither Russia nor Ukraine, along with the rest of the Nato and EU countries, are ever going to accept the presence of UN peacekeeping forces as it would have been in Africa and Asia. Should India and Mr Modi speak up about the dangers of expanding Nato eastwards, even if it means the Nato members would not like it. But it would have given India the room to tell Russia to refrain from wanton killing and destruction in Ukraine. That would have meant India would be able to speak truth to power. But then, the truth has no place in realpolitik.