Russia is auxiliary to US-India partnership, not balancer

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) watch the Annual International Vladivostok Jigoro Junior Judo Tournament, Vladivostok, September 5, 2019. 

The Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times has featured a stimulating commentary entitled Modi does balancing act between US and Russia. It discusses the ‘Chanakyan’ moorings of India’s diplomacy vis-a-vis Russia. 

The hypothesis is uncomplicated — namely, that India ‘balances’ its relations with the US and Russia with a view to get a good deal from both without being either power’s soulmate. 

The ‘Chanakyan’ mindset is simplistic — and often naive — to cope with the complexities of the 21st century world order. But it is the best that is available for India’s ruling elite, which has an abysmal paucity of intellectual resources to adapt India to the rapidly changing world scenario — or optimally tap into it. 

Tactic cannot substitute for strategy, whereas, Modi government revels in tactical manoeuvrings. The upcoming Howdy Modi in Houston, Texas, is a telling example. Quintessentially, through this extravagant gig in Houston, India hopes to claw its way back into Trump’s affection and pecking order. (See my blog Howdy Modi is a win-win. But does it matter?) 

The Houston rally highlights that if Trump is besotted with America’s potential rise as an energy superpower, India will make itself relevant by offering its burgeoning energy market for US exports — even by substituting next-door Iran with imports from the US at much higher cost. 

If Trump feels irritated with the (paltry) trade deficit with India, Delhi will simply buy more American products, civilian and military. If Trump demands market access or a level playing field in e-commerce and data management, no problem, India will amend its rules and regulations. Howdy Modi is expected to launch the negotiations for an India-US Free Trade Agreement.     

But the Chinese commentary misses a key point. The fact of the matter is that in none of these diplomatic gyrations, India is balancing its relations with the US and Russia. The Modi government prioritises a defining partnership with the US where Russia is inconsequential. 

If discords or irritants appear (such as on Trump’s  outbursts on Kashmir), India will quietly start working to harmonise with him by appeasing him elsewhere with a view to moderate or even silence him. But the compass as such remains well set on the voyage ahead. 

So, where does Russia figure in the Indian elite’s scheme of things? Clearly, Russia is not a balancer, since it is a much weaker power than the US and will remain so for decades to come. Russia lacks innovation and Indian elites are sceptical whether Russia has anything to offer by way of high technology. 

Equally, in the ‘de-ideologised’ climate of India-Russia relationship, there is nothing like the Indian Diaspora in the US, which is estimated to be nine times more educated than the Indian population in India, to stimulate the Indian ruling elite. Simply put, the relationship has ceased to be Brahminical. 

In some ways, it has become a boutique relationship that reminds one of bonsai, the Japanese art of miniaturising trees. Succinctly put, Russia gives weapons with cutting edge technology that the US is loathe to share with even its closest NATO allies.  

The crisis over Kashmir has revealed that Russia also serves the role of a stepney (reserve tyre). When one of the four American tyres goes phut, India replaces it with the stepney so that the vehicle can keep running. 

But then, the usage is strictly limited to the interregnum until an American tyre is located at the nearest garage. Modi government has located a garage in Houston. 

Meanwhile, Russia provided useful back-up by voicing support for India’s stance on Kashmir at a juncture when the Trump administration remains unhelpful due to compulsions stemming from the Afghan situation. 

The Russian help was very useful so that Modi’s Kashmir policy, which has hardly any takers in the West, didn’t meet with a sudden death internationally. Importantly, it gave Modi government the respite to work hard below the radar to turn the Trump administration around. 

Howdy Modi is both a creative initiative to entrap Trump in rings of appeasement as also an early celebration of Indian success in silencing the irrepressible POTUS on the Kashmir issue — at least for the present.  

Meanwhile, the stepney goes back to where it belongs — the vehicle’s ‘boot space’. No doubt, it will be carefully stored and the tyre pressure will be regularly checked to make sure that it remains roadworthy through rain or sunshine, because one never knows when it may be needed again. 

It’s a reasonable surmise that a great nation with a proud history such as Russia, with a long and chequered memory in international diplomacy, cannot be myopic about India’s ‘Chanakyan’ calculus. Therefore, despite all Chanakyan entreaties by the Indian elite, it never ever — not even remotely — crossed the Russian mind to roll back the country’s entente with China for the sake of pleasing India. 

In fact, Russia also has begun to compartmentalise its relationship with India. Even while Russian diplomats voiced support for India on Kashmir, the Kremlin-funded RT featured an exclusive 30-minute interview with Imran Khan. And Imran Khan plunged into a platinum-grade diatribe against Modi government’s ‘repression’ of Muslims in J&K and on Modi and the RSS’ Hindu fundamentalist outlook and hostility toward Pakistan.  

Looking ahead, Russia ties will remain useful for ‘Naya India’ as an adjunct to its defining partnership with the US. But the India-Russia relationship is increasingly more important to Moscow. Russia conferred its highest national award on Modi on the eve of the crucial 2019 poll and has also been given Modi the honour of being invited as the chief guest at the prestigious Eastern Economic Forum summit in Vladivostok recently. 

Will Delhi reciprocate? Will Delhi hold a Howdy Modi in Tyumen, Siberia’s booming, cosmopolitan oil capital? Of course not. What a pity the Sangh Parivar is not a stakeholder in Russia!