Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told Bloomberg in Washington on April 23 that while India wanted to be with the “European Union and the Western, free, liberal world”, it is forced to be with Russia because of Pakistan and China. It can be seen as a candid Indian confession where strategic imperatives are acknowledged, whatever the temptations. It indicates that India’s heart is with the democratic world of the West, but that it cannot afford to join the club.
Perhaps, it is not the best way of expressing India’s dilemma. Or, may be, it is India’s way of wriggling out of its uncomfortable position on the war in Ukraine following the Russian invasion. But it shows India’s vulnerability more than anything else because it means that India is not yet equipped to face the combined challenge posed by a hostile China and Pakistan. And it also means that India is dependent on Russian armaments to deal with the neighbours.
The truth, of course, is more complicated. The Modi government wants to make India self-reliant in terms of arms manufacturing and even become an arms exporter. It does not, however, seem that India has a clearly thought-out plan to achieve the goal of India becoming a self-sufficient military power able to defend itself. The present strategy articulated by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is that of asking the Americans, the British and the French to put up arms manufacturing units in India as a way of creating defence partnerships. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on his recent visit to India, has held out the offer that Britain will help India build a jet fighter with new technology, indirectly saying that the British jet fighter technology is superior to what India is getting from Russia, and even France. Of course, this is in reference to the French Rafales and Russian Sukhois.
Of course, India’s signal to the West is that if it wants India to be on its side, it should address India’s concerns with Pakistan and China. That would mean that the West should contain Pakistan and, also, break the China-Pakistan bonding. The West is aggressively anti-China, but it is unlikely to adopt an aggressively anti-Pakistan stance. Whatever problems the West has with Pakistan, it is unlikely to abandon Pakistan in favour of India.
Russia, too, has been keeping its door open for Pakistan, apart from its close bonding with China. And as India is unwilling to break its close ties with Russia, Pakistan will be unwilling to move away from China, and it would want to get what it can from Russia. The play of balance of conflicting interests is what lies at the base of a multi-polar global politics.
India is, then, caught in the coils of compulsion and it can be said that the Modi government, like the governments that went before it, is exercising its options within the constraints of strategic imperatives. But it would not be possible for India to speak of ideals and principles, which is what India and Indians would like to do. But a way must be found to reach that relatively open space of strategic freedom, which is hugely different from the strategic autonomy that India is now seeking to exercise.
Strategic freedom will become possible when India can stand on its own feet in terms of science and technology, which leads to economic and military advantage. In the Ukraine war, Russia is losing its military edge because it may not hold out long on the economic front. This was also the reason that the Soviet Union lost out.
What Russia does not have and what the Soviet Union did not have is freedom, freedom which is at the root of human creativity. With all its imperfections, and many of them most deplorable, the West, including the Old World of Europe and the New World of America, has strived for the ideal of perfection in religion, philosophy, art and in science. Freedom, on the face of it, lacks cohesiveness but is the force that propels human civilisation forward. The West, with all its perfidies, will win if it does not abandon the ideal of freedom, and that is what the West is striving for.
India and Indians must find faith in this idea of freedom which goes beyond the limitations of nationalism. It is the faith that every human being is born for freedom, irrespective of creed and country. The Russians under Vladimir Putin and the Chinese under communism, do not have this commitment to freedom. The Indian position on the Ukraine war is realistic and sensible, but it lacks the fire of idealism because the powers that be do not understand the virtues of freedom.
Mahatma Gandhi's contribution to the Indian freedom struggle goes beyond securing for India political freedom. He also stood for freedom in its idealistic sense, in his own angular way. For Gandhi, freedom was a moral imperative. The Congress, after Independence, carried a bit of this Gandhian idealism under Jawaharlal Nehru despite its trappings of an ineffective peacenik. What we need to recover is the moral fervour of freedom that Gandhi symbolised in a blazing manner.
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