Neighbourhood, not Ukraine war, should be India’s priority now

Irony but true. At a time when there are suggestions, if not outright calls, for India to play a peacemaker's role between warring Russia and Ukraine in distant Europe, the South Asian neighbourhood is in trouble. Simultaneously, Pakistan on the land-side with a long adversarial history and Sri Lanka on the oceanfront, seen as getting friendlier than any time in this century, are facing political instability. Maldives, the one neighbour that has boldly declared an ‘India First’ foreign policy, is faced with an ‘India Out’ campaign simultaneously as if the unending internal squabble within the MDP leader of the ruling coalition were not enough. It is tempting and even exhilarating for Indians to think that the world wants us in Europe, to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. Considering that Europe had colonised us until not very long ago, and Moscow had played peacemaker between India and Pakistan, to end the war in 1965, surely, we have come a long way, in global affairs. Or, so would every Indian think, and is also entitled to conclude. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was spot on when he told Parliament that India (and Indians) “should be less concerned about “giving  gyan ” to others in the world over foreign policy and should look at the national interest, play its role and make its contribution”. India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador TS Tirumurti, said while abstaining from the General Assembly vote suspending Russia from UNHRC-Geneva, “If India has chosen any side, it is the side of peace.” Unacknowledged, the present government’s foreign policy is a return to the Nehruvian middle-of-the-course model, despite whatever ruling BJP leaders may have said about it all in the past. If nothing else, they are careful not to condemn the overall approach of Nehruvian foreign policy — though they may return, sooner than later, to criticise Nehru’s Kashmir and Tibetan policies, not necessarily in that order. Tempting, untested New Delhi needs to be cautious to tread the untested path, however tempting it may be. Visions of grandeur should be tempered by realities of the immediate circumstances. For instance, independent of party or leader in power, India has consistently desisted the offer of third-party assistance to talk out historic differences with Pakistan, and even China up to a point. If today, India wants to play a moderator’s role in someone else’s troubles, it should be prepared for similar third-party intervention in its neighbourhood problems, which is often touted as ‘tensions between nuclear weapons neighbours’. *** Also Read Does road to end the war in Ukraine run through Delhi? How a new world order is emerging from the ruins of Ukraine — and India is at the heart of it Explaining India’s position on Ukraine war, West’s coercive pressure, China-Russia tangle and pitfalls in New Delhi’s pursuit of neutrality The Ukraine crisis: How India stands to gain from its neutral stance going forward India’s Russia policy has been spot on so far, but going ahead it needs to break free of the dependence for truer strategic autonomy Big lesson for India from Ukraine war: There’s nothing bigger for a country than its national interests As Putin plays Russian roulette in Ukraine, Indian diplomacy treads a fine line Putin’s Ukraine war: Early military lessons for India from the Russian invasion How Russia-Ukraine conflict has complicated the already complex geopolitics Ghosespot | How Opposition slamming Modi government’s handling of crisis doesn’t hold water Russia’s war in Ukraine: How India’s UN Security Council vote was pragmatic Russia-Ukraine crisis: Here's what will get more expensive in India if two countries go to war The meta-narrative about India’s non-involvement in the Ukraine imbroglio India’s abstinence from UN Security Council vote on Ukraine was the right decision *** Today, the national consensus, as brought out in Parliament, is for continuing with the current Indian position on the Russo-Ukrainian war, for instance. If it has to change in any substantive form or shape, then the government may have to take Parliament, and through Parliament, the nation, into confidence. It would be even more so if the issue is for allowing third-nation, or even third-party intervention, even if of the UN variety (for argument’s sake) to facilitate/moderate, India-Pakistan or India-China dispute-resolution talks. It is for such reasons — and those reasons are reasonable and justifiable — that India should stay away from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as even the just-now unclear kind of solution, including border changes, could be thrust upon us, on a later day, as a model worth considering/following in our own backyard. On paper, the war favours Russia now, but the end-game may produce a different perspective. This is not to rule out the even more increasing possibility of India getting drawn into an avoidable Russo-American conflict until we as a nation is prepared to face the challenges and fallouts. Just now the US-backed UNGA resolution sacking Russia from the UNHRC should be enough provocation for Moscow to act wildly. Russia has no use for the UNHRC than as a voting member or an influence-peddler on behalf of third nations, just as China has the interests of its ‘client States’ to take care of. It may make sense for the two biggies as also their dependents to quit UNHRC, if not the UN, before being asked. It may sound impossible, yes, but if nations like India are to consider a mediator’s role, they may end up having to weigh such possibilities, and definitely get involved in Russo-American big-guys’ battle of wits, where Moscow would want the UNHRC resolution withdrawn, and President Joe Biden withdrawing and apologising for calling Putin ‘butcher’, ‘war-criminal’, etc. It cannot be part of India’s own terms of reference if it were to think of a role to find a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine War, but after part-meeting the Russian concerns, which continues to be of no concern to the US and its NATO allies. In a way, if Ukraine were to offer guarantees that Russia wanted on its joining NATO, and if Russia were to end bombing Ukraine, then the war ends there. There have been hitches yet, hence the war is continuing despite hopeful negotiations, already being facilitated by common neighbour Turkey, from the same Eurasian region. Outlandish suggestions There are also outlandish suggestions, flowing from the strategic possibilities of our part of the world re-drawing the emerging global order, if and if only India could resolve its problems with China and Pakistan. Until before Doklam and more so Galwan, China was believed/known to have suggested a tripartite, also involving Pakistan, to sort of ‘trilateral’ border issues, so as to usher in permanent peace and prosperity in the sub-continent. ‘Trilateral’, it’s in Chinese perception, as it involves Aksai Chin, which is a part of Pakistani-occupied Kashmir (PoK) that Islamabad gifted away to Beijing, and where they together built the Karakoram Highway first, and the debt-trap of a BRI project, since. The latter was among the main reasons why India stayed away from the BRI launch function in Beijing,  circa  2017. It’s also among the major reasons, as in the case of Sri Lanka and many other Third World nations, where China’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ of ‘jobless growth’ in the initial years, ruined those economies. There is thus enough to speculate on Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s rushed visit to New Delhi, that too in the midst of unending visitor-endearments in and to New Delhi, at times bordering on warnings, if not threats. This is not to count on the possible role of Russia in an India-China conflict situation. It is doubtful if the West would be wooing India as much but for its current membership of the UNSC, in an elected seat, whose term ends this year-end. Of course, the US in particular is peeved at the real possibility of its uncanny knack of opening the can of worms now leading up to the devaluation of the American dollar as the global reserve currency, if and if only ‘friendly nations’ like India were to buy oil from Russia, side-stepping the traditional dollar route. In consequence, the carefully-crafted American initiatives like the Quad and Indo-Pacific, to counter a rising China, based on the belief that post-Cold War Russia is  passe’ , could suffer — and at times for good. Does it all indicate that behind the scenes, Russia and China want India on their sides and that the latter would be willing to make concessions if that helps. The recent utterances of Pakistan army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa that they should talk out all disputes, including Kashmir, with India, may not be a stand-alone suggestion. Bajwa’s comments came in the midst of Pakistan’s internal political crisis, where in the past the army has had the tendency to indicate to the outside world that it’s still the real boss. For his part, discredited ex-prime minister Imran Khan, too, has taken a surprisingly new line that outside powers (meaning the US?) would threaten India on foreign policy issues as he claimed that they had done in the case of Pakistan under his care. In saying what he said, Gen Bajwa has said that Indian leaders are stubborn. Maybe, his nation, whoever is in charge, can demonstrate that it means business by beginning with the thorniest of all issues for the past decades. More than Kashmir in a way, it’s cross-border terrorism. Pakistan will have to begin by handing over those in the ‘List of 21’ that then Indian Home Minister LK Advani had handed over to visiting Pakistan President, the by- now discredited Pervez Musharraf, at the unsuccessful Agra Summit, 2001. Traditional sphere of influence In any other region of the world, a nation of India’s size(s) with neighbours who have inherent limitations and acquired problems as India’s would have been welcome to help sort of domestic issues of the kind a few of them is facing just now. Not for India despite the government’s pronounced ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, which it has been practising for long, but more to the point during and after the Covid-19 pandemic stuck the world as a whole. With Pakistan, India has historical adversity dating back to Independence and Partition and also the four wars that Islamabad lost, and the ‘zero war’ option that they invented to inflict terrorist damage on the larger neighbour.  Even more critical to the restoration of normalcy in bilateral ties is terrorism, which has subsided since India’s ‘Surgical Strikes’ but has not ended, all the same. After a long gap, Sri Lanka was seen as becoming policy-neutral between India and China, especially post-Covid, when New Delhi has been rushing fiscal and commodity assistance of every conceivable kind, no thanks to the economic mess that it had created for itself through decades. The political mess that has now overtaken the non-existent action plans threatens political stability and economic recovery, all the same. India cannot be seen as either advising the nation from its past economic management at the height of the 1990 forex crisis, nor dream of engaging itself in internal peace-making. Maldives is another story, where again, India has all the interest about the stability and security of the existing order, as different from existing rulers or any other — but, such a helpful attitude is unwelcomed and is even despised by the political Opposition, under former President Abdulla Yameen. The irony is India has stakes in the political stability and consequent, economic and strategic security of each of these nations, including Pakistan, but can do nothing about it. With India’s name being brought out to build peace in the Russo-Ukraine conflict, New Delhi cannot even urge such other nations, big or small, to step in sort out issues in each of these nations. Either one or all stake-holders in these countries is not going to accept it — embarrassing India, domestically, regionally and on the global theatre. Thus, for India to foray into international peace diplomacy of the kind being talked about, it has to regain the global acknowledgement of South Asia/IOR as ‘India’s traditional sphere of influence’. It was politico-strategic conferment that came with Independence. It was allowed be lost in the post-Cold War, post-reforms era, which the current ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy neither has restored nor even sought to restore. All things, good and bad, have to begin at home. And for India, South Asia and the IOR is home. The rest of the world can, and should wait! The writer is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai. Views expressed are personal. Read all the Latest News , Trending News ,  Cricket News , Bollywood News , India News and Entertainment News here. Follow us on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram .

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