About the author:
Varun Sahni, Professor of International Politics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Former Vice-Chancellor, University of Goa
In the global response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, India was amongst a handful of countries that refused to be corralled into condemning the Russian action and/or acting against Russian interests. To most observers, India’s response (or lack thereof) was puzzling, not least because India’s relations with the United States are currently better than they have ever been. During the Crimean crisis of 2014, India’s response was similarly muted, but there is one glaring difference: India was in election mode in 2014, with polling across the country staggered across six weeks, whereas in 2022 there is a strong leadership with proactive foreign policy goals securely installed in power. Various reasons and motivations, some plausible, others quite fanciful, have been attributed to India, and this article seeks to disentangle them. We will first analyze the proximate reasons for India’s behavior and then take a deeper dive into India’s longer-term perceptions and motivations.
History, hi-tech and hydrocarbons
In the first place, Indian reticence in openly criticizing Russia reflects the longstanding friendship of the two countries going back to the Soviet period. Indian public opinion attitudes consistently and unambiguously treat Russia as a “friend of India.” Across India’s diverse and divided political spectrum, there is widespread reluctance to publicly criticize Russia.
Secondly, India’s security dependence on Russian military hardware reduces its diplomatic flexibility. In 2009-2013 India emerged as the world’s largest arms importer, purchasing 14 percent of the world’s total arms exports. Of India’s arms imports during this period, over 75 percent came from Russia. India lives in a tough neighborhood and Russia is currently key to its military modernization program. It would not be in India’s interest to alienate Russia and particularly President Vladimir Putin.
Finally, assuring guaranteed access to energy supplies is now a potent foreign policy driver for India, which has an enormous population that is growing and modernizing rapidly from a low socioeconomic base. India has the sixth largest energy consumption in the world, and one of the fastest growth rates of increasing energy consumption. Access to heavily discounted Russian oil, even for a few months, was a huge attraction that India wished to take full advantage of.
A non-issue called democracy
There is also considerable skepticism in India about the way in which the U.S. and the West have used democracy as a foreign policy tool. India’s democratic credentials are authentic and formidable: Seventy-five years of genuine liberal democracy in a pluralist, multicultural, socio-economically deprived, continent-sized setting is an achievement of world historical importance that deserves to be celebrated. Nevertheless, there are three reasons for India’s reluctance to play the democracy card in its foreign relations.
Firstly, India has very Indian reasons for being democratic: From the founding moments of the Republic, participative and representative politics have created the space for socio-cultural pluralism within India. The second reason is India’s ambiguous relationship with the Western market democracies. India has never been a part of the Western security community: Threats to India have not been seen by the West as threats to democracy. The liturgical roll call of post-9/11 terrorist outrages included Bali, Madrid, and London but not Mumbai, Ahmedabad, or Delhi. Thirdly, India resides in an undemocratic neighborhood. In most of India’s neighbors, democracy has either been completely absent or has been at best a fleeting visitor. Thus, India does not have the luxury to focus on countries that are democratic. Furthermore, overt Indian support for democratic forces in its neighboring countries would significantly weaken those forces. India’s interest in democracy is domestic; the West’s framing of the Russia-Ukraine war as a struggle between authoritarianism and democracy therefore does not reverberate in India.
The perpetual quest for strategic autonomy
Going past the proximate reasons, an assessment of India’s external relations from the moment of its birth as a sovereign territorial state in 1947 reveals a stubborn resistance to all external attempts to influence its foreign policy decisions. During World War II, the Indian Army, with 2.5 million men under arms, raised the largest all-volunteer military force in human history and played a decisive role in the defeat of the Axis Powers across a multitude of war theaters. Despite its wartime contribution, India was unable to secure a permanent UN Security Council seat at the San Francisco Conference due to its colonial status; truly a “near miss” that explains India’s enduring reluctance to replace London with any other external power center in the promotion and protection of its vital interests.
The plain geographical fact is that India is a large country, demographically and territorially, and has been so since 1947 despite its partition to create Pakistan. The consciousness of being big lies at the root of India’s perpetual quest for strategic autonomy. India is far too big to lie under the security umbrella of any other power, a condition that will only accentuate over time as India’s power increases in both absolute and relative terms. Indeed, India’s nuclear choices are best understood in the context of this primal and compelling interest. While India could well become a strategic partner of the U.S. in the future, especially in the troubled geostrategic context of the Indo-Pacific region, an India-U.S. alliance relationship – akin to the relations that the U.S. currently enjoys within the North Atlantic alliance or with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and Israel – is highly unlikely to fructify for precisely the reasons already enunciated.
The revival of non-alignment
The preceding discussion brings us to non-alignment, which was the attempt by India as a large but weak post-colonial state to maintain policy autonomy in a bipolar world. Although it is now often derided in India, non-alignment was an original foreign policy that was both prudent (from a realist perspective) and ethical (from a normative perspective). However, by 1971, in the face of an emerging Washington-Beijing-Islamabad axis and in anticipation of another war against Pakistan, India signed a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union. For twenty years after that, India enjoyed a quasi-alliance relationship with the Soviet Union that provided it with a sense of security backup. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, India has been essentially “friendless” in the international system: It has friendly relations with many countries but friendship – in the sense of mutual support in security matters – with none.
In recent years, there have been a couple of interesting attempts to revive the notion of non-alignment. The first, labeled “non-alignment 2.0,” was by a set of Indian scholars in 2014;1 the second, characterized as “Active Non-Alignment,” was by a group of Latin American thinkers in 2021.2 Carlos Fortín, Jorge Heine and Carlos Ominami assert about Active Non-Alignment: “This is not a question of resurrecting anachronistic foreign policy approaches. On the contrary, we are proposing an up-to-date alternative, attuned to the imperatives of the new century.”3 This is perhaps a good moment to look back at the original doctrine of non-alignment.
K. P. Misra, preeminent scholar of the original foreign policy doctrine of non-alignment, characterized it as “a movement which the Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans espouse to transform the present international order into an order based on justice to subserve their national objective of creating socio-economically strong and politically viable political systems within their respective countries.”4 Despite the passage of over four decades since Misra penned these words, they resonate deeply today, which says something profoundly significant about the persisting North-South divide in the world economy. Misra dismisses the notion that non-alignment is a negative concept and affirms that it is through negative terms that Indians have expressed since time immemorial positive and affirmative ideas of profound significance: instead of “many,” there is “non-one” (aneka), Gandhi’s beloved value of “non-violence” (ahimsaa) has a gravitas that “peace” (shanti or aman) somehow lacks. To Indian ears, “non-grudge” (avaira) sounds better than “tolerance,” and so on. Setting terminological issues aside, non-alignment was not a negative concept substantively either: Its essential thrust – national reconstruction aided and supported by appropriate international transformation – was robustly positive.
Non-alignment is routinely dismissed today by rhetorically questioning what it could possibly mean in a world that is no longer bipolar, a question that conveniently ignores the historical transformation of the non-aligned agenda in the late 1970s and early 1980s from the East-West geopolitical polarity to the North-South geo-economic divide. We could ask a similarly meaningless question of the word “computer,” a device that most of us use for every task other than computing.
Hedging or transcending?
Although this article began with an analysis of India’s responses to invasion and war on the European continent, Europe is no longer the cockpit of world affairs. The global center of gravity has shifted to the Indo-Pacific region, and it is to the new central theater that we will shift our attention.
The rise of China and the reactions of China neighbors to its rise are converting the Indo-Pacific – the Asian landmass and its surrounding waters – into a zone of security interdependence. Asia is currently in the throes of political modernity: The primary driver of politics in Asia is the sovereign territorial state perfecting its sovereign territoriality. European postmodern pretensions, in a shambles in Europe itself, are especially irrelevant to Asia. Furthermore, Asia is not a “naturally” Sino-centric continent immune to the logic of balance of power politics. There is no deep historical memory of Chinese ascendance south of the Himalayas; India and China first encountered each other in mid-twentieth century as large, weak, post-colonial, sovereign territorial states. Thus, while Europe’s present is not Asia’s present, Europe’s past could well be Asia’s future.
Current trends and reasonable projections suggest that India will by the next decade have to contend with a bipolar Indo-Pacific in a bipolar world. Choosing between Washington and Beijing would not be an optimal scenario for New Delhi: As the least powerful of the three states, India would be choosing between declining global hegemony and rising continental hegemony. One strategy to overcome this dilemma is hedging, which is a rational response to power transition and strategic uncertainty.
In the Quadrilateral Initiative (the Quad), India is collaborating intensely with USA, Australia, and Japan. Like India, they are maritime democracies in the Indo-Pacific; unlike India, they are formally allies. But India is also firmly in the BRICS grouping with Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa to bring much-needed changes in core issues of global governance. The five BRICS countries are contra-hegemonic and revisionist to different degrees, but here again India stands apart. While China, Russia, and Brazil seek the rapid relative decline of the U.S., India would be unwilling to swap US global hegemony for Chinese continental hegemony. This is a classic example of hedging: the Quad for India’s geostrategic interests, BRICS for its global governance concerns.
A new non-alignment would be difficult because one of the polar powers (China) would be a neighbor with which India shares a long and unresolved border. Fence sitting would be difficult because India, although not a polar power like China and USA, would also have the system-shaping capabilities and intentions of a great power. Alternately, India could pursue a transcending strategy that seeks to build cooperative security in the Indo-Pacific over a ten-to-fifteen-year time horizon. Since this would be the period in which its capabilities would begin to decline in relative terms, it would be an opportune moment for the U.S. to get enmeshed in this Asian Helsinki process. By building robust political and economic links with both China and the U.S., India could play an important catalytic role in constructing cooperative security in the Indo-Pacific.
1. Sunil Khilnani, Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign & Strategic Policy for India in the 21st Century (New Delhi, India: Penguin Books, 2014).
2. Carlos Fortín, Jorge Heine, and Carlos Ominami (eds.) El No Alineamiento Activo y América Latina: una doctrina para el nuevo siglo (Santiago, Chile: Catalonia, 2021).
3. Carlos Fortín, Jorge Heine, and Carlos Ominami, “Latin America between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Second Cold War and the Active Non-Alignment Option,” Global Policy, October 2, 2020, 15, https://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/02/10/2020/latin-america-between-rock-and-hard-place-second-cold-war-and-active-non-alignment.
4. K.P. Misra, “Towards Understanding Non-Alignment,” International Studies 20, no. 1-2 (January 1981): 23–37,
Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.
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