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Narendra Modi scores diplomatic victories despite refusing to break with Russia

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Emmanuel Macron greeted him with a bear hug outside the Elysée Palace shortly after his re-election as French president. In Berlin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz welcomed his “super partner”. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, visiting New Delhi, praised his khaas dostor a special friend.

The bonhomie of European leaders in recent weeks towards Narendra Modi capped a frenetic period of international diplomacy for the Indian prime minister, despite his refusal to sever ties with Russia following his invasion of Ukraine.

Modi toured France, Germany and Denmark following visits to India by Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as Western leaders wooed him and signed bilateral deals meant to tie New Delhi – seen as a vital Asian counterweight to China – closer to the west. .

“There’s the realization that India is far too big and far too important to fit into these working definitions of ‘Either you’re with us or you’re against us,'” former minister Nirupama Rao said. Indian Foreign Affairs and Ambassador. in the United States and China. “The position that India has taken has largely helped India to consolidate its own interests.”

After some early criticism, Western leaders carefully avoided tense exchanges over New Delhi’s ties with Moscow. Instead, with the Indian military reliant on Russian weaponry, the UK and France have announced defense partnerships to diversify its arsenal. The EU and UK have also sought to speed up negotiations for free trade agreements to deepen economic ties.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Narendra Modi
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson described Modi as his ‘khaas dost’, or special friend, during a visit to New Delhi in April © REUTERS

Some leaders, like Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, who met Modi in Copenhagen, have suggested that India could use its neutrality on the conflict to “influence” Moscow.

“Everyone understands that the political leadership in India is perfectly comfortable,” an Indian official said, referring to the dominance of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party in domestic politics. For foreign leaders, “the best option is to align with [the BJP] on issues of common interest and maintaining subtle pressure on issues of concern to us”.

Many Indians regard Russia as the country’s oldest partner. Post-independence leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, looked to the Soviet Union for economic inspiration. The country would continue to depend on military support to bolster its forces against its great rival, Pakistan.

Economic ties with the United States and Europe have become much more important, but most Indian weapons are still of Russian origin, which means that New Delhi continues to depend on Moscow for maintenance and logistical support. .

India remained loyal to its historic partner after the invasion, abstaining in UN votes denouncing Russia. He also sought to bolster bilateral trade, increasing imports of cut-price Russian oil as Western countries tried to economically isolate the Kremlin by imposing far-reaching sanctions. The volume of India’s fuel imports from Russia, however, remains well below that of many European countries.

Yet analysts say that with India seen as a vital geopolitical and economic alternative to China, international leaders see little benefit in angering officials, who have responded furiously to international criticism. Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in March denounced what he called a “campaign” against India over its imports of Russian oil.

Narendra Modi with Olaf Scholz

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called Modi a “super partner” during meetings in Berlin © CLEMENS BILAN/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The European conflict has also diverted Western attention from what India sees as a much bigger problem: the Chinese military threat in Asia and the Indian Ocean. New Delhi and Beijing have been engaged in a military confrontation on their Himalayan border since mid-2020.

For the United States, “the Russian issue takes nothing away from the China problem,” said C Raja Mohan, senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute think tank. “On the question of China, the centrality of India is obvious.”

But KC Singh, a former Indian foreign minister, argued that India’s dithering over the Russian conflict could nonetheless continue to damage the country’s ties with the West if leaders such as Biden conclude that there is no going back. cannot trust New Delhi in times of crisis.

“They send a signal to the West: how reliable can India be a partner? ” he said. “We have a convergence of interests with the Americans regarding China. As far as Ukraine is concerned, we want to sit on the wall. Can you be a selective partner? »

Others believe that India’s public comments, as well as numerous meetings with Western leaders, made clear its disapproval of Putin’s actions. Although India did not directly condemn Russia, it criticized the killing of civilians in Bucha without directing blame. Modi has also repeatedly called on countries to respect “territorial integrity”, which some read as a veiled rebuke from Moscow.

Piyush Goyal, India’s trade minister and senior BJP official, told foreign reporters this week that India’s position was well understood in the world.

“We recognize that the democratic world needs to engage much more with each other and therefore all world leaders, including the European Union, want to broaden their engagement with India,” he said. declared.

Additional reporting by Chloe Cornish in Mumbai

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