The Ukraine crisis spotlights the West’s need to understand India’s democratic decline

22 March 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin , Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a group photo prior to their trilateral meeting at the G20 Summit in June 2019 in Osaka, Japan. Slow economic growth and Modi’s domestic policy has made India find itself in company it does not want to be seen with.
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin , Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a group photo prior to their trilateral meeting at the G20 Summit in June 2019 in Osaka, Japan. Slow economic growth and Modi’s domestic policy has made India find itself in company it does not want to be seen with.
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

It is rather ironic that since the start of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, India’s policy response to the crisis has been remarkably akin to that of China. Their votes, or non-votes, in multilateral bodies have been identical, as they try to find a way around western sanctions to continue trade with Russia. India has found itself in company it does not want to be seen with. The problem runs deeper though. India’s anaemic economic growth has placed it in a bind while making tough foreign-policy choices. But it is the peculiar nature of domestic politics under Prime Minister Narendra Modi—espousing values which are at odds with everything the West espouses—which has made New Delhi look like a rabbit caught in the headlights of critical geopolitical shifts.

The Chinese have received all the bad press from the West, alongside the public ire of US officials. Meanwhile, India only gets a friendly nod from the same media, and a sympathetic ear in Washington. This intensity of official support for India in Washington is somewhat perplexing. Sample this: During a hearing last week, some members of the US Congress pushed Ely Ratner, the US assistant secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific security affairs, about India not standing with other members of the Quad in condemning Russia. The Quad is a strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the US. In response, Ratner launched a robust defence, arguing that, “We recognise that India has a complicated history and relationship with Russia. The majority of the weapons that they buy are from the Russians. The good news is that they are in a multi-year process of diversifying their arms purchases away from Russia … I think in terms of their relations with Russia, the trend lines are moving in the right direction.”

In a similar vein, amidst the US-led bans on trade with Russia, there has been no announcement about actions to be taken against India for getting the S-400 air defence system from Moscow. The delivery of the advanced weapon system to Indian began last year, which should have led to an immediate triggering of sanctions. But US officials, in their interactions with the press, continued to tiptoe around the subject of sanctions on India. The S-400 is a showpiece deal attracting global attention but other ongoing military deals with Russia are equally critical to India’s security.

Sushant Singh is a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research and a visiting lecturer at Yale University. 

Keywords: Caravan Columns china Russia authoritarianism Ukraine democracy
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