In his inaugural piece for Flashpoints, our newest regular columnist Harsh V. Pant made a provocative — and compelling — case that India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, has ushered in a new era in Indian foreign policy. Modi’s foreign policy has departed from that of the Congress-led government that preceded him in major ways. Most prominently, Indian foreign policy in the Modi era seems to largely be free of the shackles of Nehruvian non-alignment thinking. Additionally, defying expectations, Modi has proven himself to be a dynamic globe-trotting diplomat.
While Harsh’s analysis is on point, at least one curiosity remains in Modi’s new foreign policy: Russia. While Modi dynamically engaged India’s South Asian neighbors, China, Japan, the United States, and even ASEAN, we only caught a slight glimpse of India’s approach toward Russia in the Modi era toward the end of the year. As this blog’s readers will be aware, it’s been a huge year for Russia on the international stage. To recap, Russia’s invasion of Crimea and ensuing support for anti-government Ukrainian rebels led to widespread international isolation and sanctions against it, primarily from Western powers. In the final quarter of the year, Russia’s economy has taken a dramatic nosedive with inflation skyrocketing and growth projections concomitantly collapsing amid tumbling oil prices worldwide. India and Russia have had a special relationship dating back to the early 1970s when the two converged during the Cold War (this despite India’s vocal pronouncements of a non-aligned foreign policy when the world split in two along ideological axes). Are things changing now?
As I’ve watched Russia’s behavior on the world stage this year and the state of Russia’s economy and politics, I’ve wondered how India would react. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India earlier this month was an important data point in answering that query. As Saurav Jha cataloged in an excellent feature piece earlier this month, Putin had a relatively productive visit to India despite all the problems facing his country. Significantly, and as many predicted, Narendra Modi welcomed Putin with open arms — he even went one step further than what standard protocol would require and rhetorically expressed India’s continuing and almost unconditional support for Russia in trying times. “Times have changed, our friendship has not,” Modi noted frankly. He added that “Now, we want to take this relation to the next level and this visit is a step in that direction.” Modi even said that India and Russia “stood by each other through thick and thin,” highlighting Russia’s current economic circumstances and perhaps even Moscow’s reluctance to condemn and isolate New Delhi following its nuclear weapons tests in the late-1990s.
Putin’s recent visit to New Delhi demonstrated that rhetoric aside, the two countries do have quite a bit to gain from a continuing close bilateral relationship (again, I’ll point you to Saurav Jha’s piece for the details). Russia has been India’s largest source of defense imports in the post-Cold War era (though it could soon be supplanted by the United States based on recent trends). Additionally, India’s push for civilian nuclear power will require continuing cooperation between these two countries on energy issues. The benefits for Moscow include India’s status as a stable client state for defense hardware and New Delhi’s willingness, if not to back Russia outright at a time of international isolation, at least to continue business as usual. To speak to the latter point, Putin’s delegation to New Delhi surprisingly included Sergy Aksyonov, the 42-year-old Russian nationalist leader of Russian-occupied Crimea, drawing a “troubled” reaction from the United States. New Delhi hardly blinked, saying it wasn’t “officially aware” of Aksyonov’s participation in the trip. All things considered, India and Russia continue to enjoy a solid give-and-take relationship. Mutual interests are acknowledged and considered by both sides in high-level diplomatic interactions yielding tangible benefits for both countries.
Of course, in many ways, the real question shouldn’t be whether Modi is willing to lead India away from non-alignment by abandoning Russia. Non-alignment, at least since the 1970s, has been a misnomer for Indian foreign policy given India’s partnership with Russia. Since the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1971, non-alignment has come to mean maintaining a healthy distance from the United States. Breaking with this tradition, Modi’s rockstar tour of the United States in September 2014 showed that he is, if anything, a believer in closer ties between India and the United States. Given strong bipartisan support in the United States and broader calls for closer ties with India there, Modi can afford to court the U.S. while keeping things smooth with Moscow. Washington could still throw a wrench into the works by asking India to condemn Russia or publicly state support for international sanctions — something New Delhi can’t afford to do.
Ultimately, we’ll need a few more data points before being able to better predict where India and Russia will take their relationship in 2015. What we do know is that the coming year will be telling of the general trajectory. We’ll start off in late-January 2015, almost precisely a month from this writing, with U.S. President Barack Obama being honored at India’s Republic Day celebrations as chief guest — an event that will bring U.S.-India relations back into the global spotlight. Over the course of the year, the U.S. and India will be under pressure to ramp up their partnership. Will India be able to do this without damaging its relationship with Russia? Will the United States attach any sort of conditionality on India’s dealings with Moscow in a tit-for-tat move? The beauty of non-alignment in the eyes of those who supported during its heyday was that India’s bilateral diplomacy did not have to suffer the tyranny of balancing zero sum preferences. If a “Modi doctrine” truly exists, it will sprout fully in 2015. Perhaps the true litmus test of whether India is truly shedding the final vestiges of its Cold War-era legacy of non-alignment will be the evolution of the relationship between Moscow and Delhi next year.