Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI)
The developments in Ukraine are keeping Indians glued to their TV sets. Even Hindi television channels abandoned their coverage of the last phases of the endless Uttar Pradesh polls to concentrate on the war in Ukraine. Informed sources indicate that the BJP is upset as its electoral strategy, to recover ground lost in the first few phases, is getting derailed.
The Union government’s concern, ever aware of public perceptions, has increased exponentially as some TV channels began carrying telephone interviews with students stuck in Ukrainian cities or border crossing-points, in western Ukraine, with Poland, Hungary and Romania. The news became grimmer when the death was reported of a student in Kharkiv, the second-largest city, which lies close to the Russian border.
The Opposition, naturally, jumped on the government, alleging delayed responses, lack of preparation and poor anticipation of how the situation developed. The facts are that when the Indian embassy in Kyiv issued the advisory on February 15, its language was still recommendatory, not definitive. Nine days still remained for the Russians to launch the offensive.
First, did the Indian government not take the warnings emanating from none less than US President Joe Biden seriously enough, that were repeated on the day of the advisory, that Russia was readying to attack? It was also known that on the pretext of a joint military exercise, Russia had moved a large number of its troops to Belarus, which nestles on Ukraine’s northern border. These continued to stay there even after the exercise ended.
Second, the external affairs ministry needed to have got its embassy in Kyiv to develop detailed contingency plans for students in that country. An important point emerging now is that students in many places were restrained by their universities from leaving due to the likely educational impact. A threat from the embassy that the university may be blacklisted for future recruitment would have settled the matter. It is possible the Ukrainian government too may have discouraged an exodus of foreigners as it causes panic among their population. Thus, the initial step should have been to send extra hands to Kyiv to deal with a possible crisis later.
Third, having sold Air India, the ticket tariff had to be settled at the very start. When the airline started scalping students with reportedly three times the normal charge, government was still in slumber. Many students would have ruled out travel to India as the amounts were beyond their budget. Belatedly, the government decided to pick up the ticket tab, but by then the crisis had turned into war.
Finally, there is the diplomatic dimension. Seeing that India has sat on the fence and abstained on two UN Security Council resolutions, did South Block worry that strongly urging students to leave may upset the Russians as that would have appeared like accepting Western charges against Vladimir Putin as the likely aggressor? Linked to this is the delay in having a detailed contingency plan for the best and worst-case scenarios. Missions have earlier done this, but critical to success is time and imagination. As with the 9/11 attacks on America in 2001, which was not an intelligence failure but rather a failure of imagination as no one linked Arabs learning to fly, which the FBI knew, with Al Qaeda whispers and the assassination of Ahmad Shah Masood.
The government was offering a rolling defence that evolves from day to day. It began with pro-BJP guests on television demonising Ukraine and the West as provoking Mr Putin with Nato’s expansion. But Ukraine’s application has been pending for years. Then came the charge that Ukraine was unhelpful to India after the 1998 nuclear tests. But the United States, Japan and Australia were even more scathing on that, even sanctioning India. Then why join the Quad with them?
Most of the retired military officers had a pro-Russia tilt, many having spent their careers working with the Soviets and their equipment. Also, it was argued that Chanakya would be happy at India’s pragmatism by being equidistant and neutral. But is that not what Jawaharlal Nehru’s non-alignment was all about?
The last argument misses an important point. The cardinal principles on which the post-World War II security order and the United Nations was created. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter reads: "All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, etc." It is preceded by Article 2(3), which lays down that all international disputes shall be settled by "peaceful means". It’s not clear which part of this Russia, a permanent and veto-wielding UN member, does not understand. President Putin’s claims flow from paranoia, a desire to turn back the pages of history and an anachronistic desire to recreate the Soviet Union.
This brings the issue of Indian votes. As the world’s largest democracy, albeit falling in global rankings of liberal democracies, how does failing to uphold the UN Charter square with India’s aspirations to be a UNSC permanent member? What was India’s quarrel with China over Doklam? Was it not that China was breaching Bhutanese sovereignty to access it? Is it not possible that China can use Russia-like pluck and revised history to lay claim to large parts of Nepal and march up to the Terai region?
The Narendra Modi government must, as the Americans say, put their money where their mouth is. Attending "Democracy Summits" while appeasing autocratic rulers plunging the world into chaos over dubious claims does not raise India’s prestige. It compromises it. If Germany can abandon the Nord Stream-II gas pipeline, Western oil giants write off their Russian investments and Europe unite against aggression, India also needs to stop holding its nose and breathe with them.