Opinion Columnists 23 Jun 2022 Sunanda K. Datta-Ray ...
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Will Modi follow Nehru on India’s strategic autonomy?

Published Jun 23, 2022, 12:31 am IST
Updated Jun 23, 2022, 12:50 am IST
The world is waiting to see how Mr Modi responds to President Joe Biden’s flattering overtures and the courtship of high American officials
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden. (PTI file image)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden. (PTI file image)

Like Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being coaxed and cajoled to join a security pact under the leadership of the United States ostensibly to save democracy and strengthen global stability. Jawaharlal Nehru was adamant that India’s Asian destiny, of which he spoke ecstatically, could never mean playing second fiddle to a globally hegemonic America. Now, the world is waiting to see how Mr Modi responds to President Joe Biden’s flattering overtures and the courtship of high American officials.

Like his predecessors, President Biden wants an India that is not beholden to Russia on the American side. Kurt Campbell, his White House coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, calls the relationship with India the “most important for the United States in the 21st century”. His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, stresses that India-US “convergence” on the Chinese challenge matters far more than the two countries’ differences over Russia. “We are investing in a relationship that we are not going to judge by one issue — even if that issue is quite consequential — but rather that we are going to judge over the fullness of time”, he explains.

Mr Modi’s tightrope walking on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — which Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, insists is not an invasion at all but a “special military operation” — is the immediate compulsion for the US and the West in general wooing him. The long-term rationale is the expectation that given New Delhi’s own historic problems with Beijing, the enemy’s-enemy logic will oblige India to support Washington’s strategy of containing an assertive and expansionist China.

Next month’s planned virtual summit of the clumsily-named “I2U2” (India, Israel, United Arab Emirates and the United States) grouping is one invitation to form a core group with the US. Another is the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which was launched with much fanfare by 13 regional states — India again prominent among them — last month in Tokyo. Tokyo also saw the May 24 revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, which Mr Biden hints might now be revamped. A larger role for India? It’s also suggested that AUKUS, the nuclear submarine pact the United States signed last year with Australia and Britain, might be further developed. Again, for India’s benefit?

Mr Campbell has already announced that the US and its allies are ready to offer Mr Modi more security guarantees which the Centre for a New American Security, the Washington-based think-tank that he co-founded in 2007, had recently discussed. “We need to help provide India with alternatives on the security side — that means not only the United States providing capabilities but partners like Britain, France and Israel”. The United States clearly wants much stronger intelligence, trade and economic links with New Delhi.

These overtures are to be contrasted with Washington’s cavalier attitude immediately after Independence in 1947, when it denied India weapons and information, snubbed New Delhi’s “attempt to establish a formal blueprint of relations”, and practised a clever sleight of hand to deny cooperation. India was classified “upwards to the category of countries receiving ‘restricted’ US military information” and “a deliberate effort [made] to furnish the Indian military attache with relatively harmless but somewhat impressive military information…”
India was then of “negligible positive strategic importance”, while Pakistan occupied “one of the most strategic areas in the world”. That the American perception had changed was evident when the joint statement issued by Mr Modi and President Donald Trump after the former’s 2017 state visit to the White House referred to the two leaders as “responsible stewards in the Indo-Pacific region…”, resuscitating a term that Karl Haushofer, the German geopolitician, probably first used in the 1920s.

Not that India alone dominates Washington’s agenda. Alarmed by the Chinese advances in the Pacific region, an area of “enormous strategic importance”, according to Mr Campbell, the US has drawn up plans for its own counter-initiatives. President Biden’s July 13-16 tour of Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia is more a matter of domestic American politics, with the President anxious to secure oil supplies and arms sales. No doubt he also hopes that people won’t remember that he had labelled Saudi Arabia a “pariah”, the US intelligence report that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the 2018 murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or Washington’s oft-stated commitment to a two-state solution in Palestine.

But the primary focus is on Russia and China. President Biden knows that India was trying to reduce its dependence on Russian arms even before Mr Modi took over. He also knows that Russia’s share of India’s oil imports has actually gone up to more than 18 per cent from only one per cent in April, making Moscow India’s largest supplier of crude after Iraq.

If this suggests ambivalence, so does Indian policy on China. The Chinese defence minister’s angry references to the Quad and AUKUS at Singapore’s Shangri-La Dialogue may have been explained by Mr Campbell’s boast: “We’ve made behind-the-scenes, quietly remarkable progress in the areas associated with technology where not only the three countries (US, UK and Australia) are deeply engaged, but other partners are also supporting working groups.”

But will this cooperation under the American aegis help India to regain the Himalayan territory that China occupies, persuade Beijing to drop its reservations about India’s nuclear status, vacate its naval bases and outposts surrounding India’s coastal waters, or cease to flood India with inexpensive consumer products and even Chinese-made figures of Hindu gods and goddesses?

Perhaps Mr Modi sees no incongruity in the last-mentioned trade since he reportedly sub-leased the steel frame and bronze cladding for the Rs 3,000-crore statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the so-called “Statue of Unity”, to a Chinese company in Nanchang. President Xi Jinping must be tickled pink to contribute so substantially to a monument that is of immense iconic value to Mr Modi, his ruling BJP and their vision of India.

Leaving aside the ethics of relying on Chinese technology for an emblem of Indian pride, India’s rulers are obviously not driven by the same degree of animus that inspires the West’s anti-China strategy. All the more reason, therefore, why, emulating Nehru’s refusal during the Cold War to be drawn into taking sides, Mr Modi too will probably continue to do business with Russia and China while verbally supporting the West.

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