A curious case of camaraderie

SWAPNA KONA NAYUDU | Updated on March 09, 2018

A legacy of friendship Shared strategic and pragmatic interests   -  PTI

Despite dissonances, relations between India and Russia have been marked by a unique sense of harmony

Russia’s interests in India have been growing since Stalin’s death in 1953. Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin inaugurated a Third World policy that brought the leaders to India and took Nehru to Moscow, all in 1955. In the same year, when Asian and African nations met at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, Russian newspapers celebrated the event as a “sign of our age.”

The Indian establishment was enthusiastic that Stalin’s successors had discarded his “dim view of India.” During the Cold War, the relationship had more flow than ebb. In times of the three crises — the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 — India chose not to use condemnatory language against Russian foreign policy.

Russia, for its part, was seen as a steadfast supporter of India in the UN Security Council, particularly with respect to the Kashmir dispute and India’s nuclear ambitions. In the past five years, the two have also come together as part of the BRICS grouping. Over the past sixty years, growing bilateral relations give the impression that their foreign policies are entirely compatible with each other.

A comparison between Hungary, 1956, and Crimea, 2014, sheds some light on the question of intervention and how India has approached crises borne out of Russian interventionism.

Nehru’s ambivalence

During the Hungarian Revolution, Nehruvian non-alignment was put to the test when India had a delayed and diluted response to the events unfolding in Hungary, and Russian occupation of Budapest. Until much later in the course of events, Nehru refused to align himself with any initiative taken by the Americans and Eisenhower was quite certain Nehru was “falling for the Moscow line — buying their entire bill of goods.” Afraid that all-round condemnation might isolate Russia, Nehru kept up correspondence with Bulganin, and with Josip Broz Tito, whose counsel he regarded highly in this matter.

The Indian consulate in Budapest kept sending reports of two separate and successive attempts by Soviet troops to suppress the revolt. These, coupled with immense domestic pressure, particularly from leading political figures such as JB Kripalani and JP Narayan, brought into question Nehru’s own ambivalence on Russia’s interventionism.

When at last, Nehru was convinced that the Hungarian uprising was of a nationalist character, and not organised by fascist elements, he criticised the Russian leadership and stirred Indian diplomatic efforts into action. In the end, India became more critical of Russia’s actions and demanded that the UN be allowed to do its job. However, with the West, led by the US, he maintained a firm position that allowed no condemnation of Russia. Nehru sought to apply the Gandhian method of “leaving the door open” while standing on principle.

In fact, he saw Indian non-alignment as putting India in that unique place, where she was able and willing to mediate between contradictory positions.

Independent stances

Without explicitly invoking non-alignment, Modi has taken an identical position on the problem of Crimea. Modi has said that India’s effort will be “to sit together and talk, and to resolve problems in an ongoing process.” Indeed, Modi has also referred to nations who “want to give advice” and has obliquely said, “they too have sinned in some way”.

The remarkable parallel with 1956 is Nehru’s utter disdain for the West’s censure of Russia because Britain and France had simultaneously attacked Egypt in the Suez Canal Crisis.

In both cases then, and now again vis-à-vis Crimea, India has made it amply clear that her position on any issue was rooted in her assessment of the issue, and was independent of Western or American thinking.

In December 2014, when Vladimir Putin visited New Delhi, he was unofficially accompanied by acting president of Crimea, Sergei Aksyono, causing a great deal of controversy and blistering statements from Washington DC. Responding to the furore, a foreign ministry official said India and Russia agreed on the need to “diffuse Cold War-like tensions”.

Yet again, these aspects of Indian foreign policy seem to be in constant replay since they were first articulated in the 1950s. At that time, Krishna Menon and Nehru corresponded on various occasions, and particularly with regard to leaders friendly towards India — Gamal Abdel Nasser, Bulganin, and Chou En-Lai — to say that Nehru would express his disapproval privately, and that it would carry more weight and do less damage than if India were to speak publicly in its capacity as a member of the UN.

Almost as if he were heeding their caution, Modi’s statements on China’s actions in the east and south China Seas and Russia’s actions in Crimea have expressed faith in these countries, and have been reminders to both states that they were expected to act in consonance with international law, failing which they would find themselves in isolation.

Constant strategy

Although the ruling political dispensation in India has changed over the years, when it comes to Russia, Indian foreign policy has remained rather constant. This enduring feature is most evident when the question of intervention comes up. Thus, even though India officially follows a policy of non-intervention, this has not brought her in active dispute with Russia. Indeed, the most obvious exception to the Indian policy found in Bangladesh 1971, was supported by Russia, and India rewarded it with a treaty of friendship and cooperation between both countries. The relations between India and Russia are built on this extraordinary ability to reproduce a sense of harmony.

Analysts attribute this bonhomie to economic incentives, including widening cooperation on space programmes, atomic energy and military technology. Certainly, these are components of a successful relationship, but cannot and do not constitute the bedrock of political thinking.

The founding political ideas of these two States were previously considered distraught, but have now acquired certain adjacency, blunted by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the beginning Indian economic liberalisation, both arriving in 1991. Both States have had to satisfy domestic audiences that they will not be made pariahs. For India, this was a particularly compelling move in the aftermath of both rounds of nuclear testing in 1974 and again in 1998. New Delhi has understood Russian interventionism in this light, that of the outcomes and sanctions it brings from the international community.

Although there have been murmurs of disapproval whenever Russia has intervened or annexed neighbouring territory, India has addressed it in broad sweep, focusing instead on one of the many other less thorny issues in its employ. In years to come, with other mutual concerns such as terrorism, secessionism and emerging economies dominating their relations, a muted Indian response on Russian interventionism is par for the course.

The writer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

Published on January 12, 2015

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