By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and U.S. president Joe Biden met virtually last Monday to discuss their bilateral relationship, especially U,S, insistence that India not increase its oil and gas imports from Russia, according to the New York Times, Biden Urges Modi Not to Increase India’s Reliance on Russian Oil and Gas. Russian oil currently accounts for about one percent of India’s exports.
India has abstained from UN votes condemning Russian actions in Ukraine. India has most recently condemned the killings in Bucha and called for a fuller UN investigation, but tellingly, has not attributed those killings to Russia. Per the NYT:
On Monday, Mr. Modi again declined to single out Russia by name even as he condemned the apparent human rights abuses in Bucha, which the United States and others have said are evidence of war crimes.
“The news about the killings of innocent civilians in the Bucha city was very worrying,” Mr. Modi said in public remarks at the beginning of his meeting with Mr. Biden. He did not attribute the killings to Russia, but said that “we instantly condemned the killings and have called for an independent inquiry.”
These talks were accompanied by 2 plus 2 meetings in Washington, between Indian external affairs minister Dr. S. Jaishankar and Indian defense minister Rajnath Singh and their U.S. counterparts, U.S. secretary of state Anthony Blinken and U.S. secretary for defense Lloyd Austin. This was the fourth such meeting.
Now, some have suggested – in NC comments threads, among other places – that Modi will respond to U.S. arm twisting by walking back India’s commitment to an independent multi alignment policy and instead capitulate to pursuing the sanctions policy against Russia that the U.S. demands.
I think that highly unlikely, for reasons I outlined in a post two weeks ago, India: Pursuing its National Interest in the Multipolar World. First, India has pursued a broadly non-aligned policy more or less from its Independence from the Raj. This new multi-alignment policy is the logical follow-on from that policy, in response to the rise of a multipolar world. Second, Jaishankar published a remarkable book in 2020, The India Way, which serves as a primer for understanding India’s current approach to managing its international affairs. If one wants to understand the terms in which Indi’s leaders see the current state of the world and the role India should play in it, there’s no better place to start than with this erudite, elegant book. Third, to be sure, Modi’s BJP government is advancing this policy. But Modi has time and time again demonstrated a facility to draw on the best of India’s technocrats – such as Jaishankar in this case – in designing and implementing BJP government policies. Moreover, support for this multi-aligned policy extends across the Indian political spectrum – if anything, the Congress Party is even more committed to pursuing a non-aligned policy, as it was India’s first prime minister – and Congress Party member, Jawaharlal Nehru, who first charted India’s non-aligned foreign policy course. So, even in the unlikely event of an electoral upheaval, India’s multi-aligned foreign policy is here to stay.
Finally, it’s clearly in India’s self-interest to get the best possible economic deals for its people, especially – as Jaishankar has observed, India’s Russian oil imports are mere drops in the bucket, compared to Russian fossil fuel being taken in by Europe. According to The Hindustan Times, India’s 1-month oil from Russia less than Europe’s in one afternoon: Jaishankar:
Delivering a firm rebuttal to a widely held but factually inaccurate perception of India’s energy relationship with Russia, external affairs minister S Jaishankar has said those who are looking at India’s energy purchases from Russia would be better served if they turned their attention to Europe.
At the press meeting after the conclusion of the 2+2 dialogue in Washington DC on Monday, Jaishankar said, “If you are looking at energy purchases from Russia, I would suggest that your attention should be focused on Europe…We do buy some energy which is necessary for our energy security. But I suspect, looking at the figures, probably our total purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon. So you might want to think about that.”
Or, to put it more bluntly, if Germany and Europe cannot forgo their Russian fossil fuel fix, why should India do so – particularly when fuel is being offered on such favourable terms?
Aftermath of 2 + 2 Indo-U.S. Meetings
Let’s delve a bit more deeply into what happened on the immediate aftermath of the D.C. meetings. The U.S. defense department followed with release of a warm and fuzzy document, Readout of U.S. – India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue: From that document:
Secretary Austin and his counterparts exchanged views on a range of regional security priorities—spanning the Indian Ocean region to East and Southeast Asia to Europe. They agreed to maintain close consultations on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, including on humanitarian assistance efforts, and echoed support for an independent investigation into the brutal violence deployed against civilians in Bucha. In support of India’s leading role as a net security provider, the leaders discussed new opportunities to coordinate more closely together to ensure that the United States and India’s shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region continues to thrive.
The leaders discussed ways to coordinate more closely with like-minded nations—including Australia, Japan, and European partners—to ensure that our shared principles of the rule of law, freedom of the seas, and respect for the territorial integrity of sovereign states prevail today and far into the future. Today’s 2+2 Ministerial reaffirmed that the United States and India will continue stand shoulder-to-shoulder, rooted in common democratic values, as two pillars of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
in other words, all the correct noises were uttered in impeccable diplomat-speak. Alas, last September the U.S. had shocked India by peremptorily announcing a new trilateral security arrangement, AUKUS, among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, thus superseding the Quadrlateral Security Dialogue – the Quad – among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. More than any other recent U.S. action, this move helped convince India that the U.S. is a less than reliable ally. India had been a prime mover behind the Quad arrangements. Moreover, as part of the new AUKUS accord, the U.S. agreed to send nuclear submarines to Australia – after having dithered about sending such subs to India, due to concern about technology transfer to India.
While the U.S. defense department played good cop, state slipped easily into the bad cop role, choosing to highlight concerns about Indian human rights abuses at a joint press conference. According to the Hindustan Times, US monitoring ‘concerning’ human rights abuses in India: Blinken:
During his press appearance after the 2+2 dialogue — with defence minister Rajnath Singh and external affairs minister S Jaishankar standing next to him — Blinken said that India and the US share a commitment to “our democratic values, such as protecting human rights”.
“We regularly engage with our Indian partners on these shared values, and to that end we are monitoring some recent concerning developments in India, including a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police, and prison officials.”
While Washington has emphasised the need for protection of minorities and civil liberties in India, this is the first time in recent times that US has directly implicated Indian government officials in human rights abuses.
The Indian ministers did not respond on the dais.
Blinken did not elaborate, and it was not clear what specific incidents he was referring to….
The state department followed with the release of a report the very next day highlighting specific U.S. concerns about India’s human rights record, 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: India. From the executive summary:
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police and prison officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention by government authorities; political prisoners or detainees; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression and media, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, use of criminal libel laws to prosecute social media speech; restrictions on internet freedom; overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operations of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; refoulement of refugees; serious government corruption; government harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; crimes involving violence and discrimination targeting members of minority groups based on religious affiliation, social status or sexual orientation or gender identity; and forced and compulsory labor, including child labor and bonded labor.
Despite government efforts to address abuses and corruption, a lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity. Investigations and prosecutions of individual cases took place, but lax enforcement, a shortage of trained police officers, and an overburdened and underresourced court system contributed to a low number of convictions.
Terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, northeastern states, and Maoist terrorism-affected areas committed serious abuses, including killings and torture of armed forces personnel, police, government officials, and civilians, kidnapping, and recruitment and use of child soldiers.
The Hindustan Times article further discussed pressures from progressive Democrats “which have accused India of democratic backsliding in recent years.” Blinken and Jaishankar met again Tuesday in an event on Tuesday at Howard University, acccoring to The Times of India,Blinken & Jaishankar for enhanced US-India educational ties to boost bilateral relations.
How did India – specifically Jaishankar – respond to the U.S. concerns? Over to the Times of India, Have concerns about human rights in US: EAM Jaishankar:
Unfazed and unbowed in the face of American pressure, India is pushing back at Washington on several contentious issues- including the threat of sanctions. and its crusade for human rights – while maintaining that ties between the two sides are strong enough to accommodate differences.
In a blunt rebuttal to the US menacing New Delhi with sanction threats over its purchases of Russian S-400 missile system, external affairs minister S Jaishankar on Wednesday said CAATSA, the US domestic law that enjoins sanctions for such transactions with American adversaries, was for Washington to sort out.
“It is their legislation and whatever has to be done has to be done by them,” Jaishankar said, implicitly declaring that India will do what it takes to safeguard its security without worrying about sanctions.
Jaishankar similarly pushed back at US criticism of human rights in India, attributing it to American lobbies and vote banks.
“People are entitled to have views about us.We also are entitled to have views about their lobbies and vote banks.We will not be reticent. We also have views on other people’s human rights, particularly when it pertains to our community,” Jaishankar retorted in one of the strongest repudiation of the constant American lectures on human rights. Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.
Is anyone in Washington listening? Well, this subsequent report in Firstpost, suggests that perhaps Blinken now understands that the US bullying isn’t likely to yield the results the U.S. seeks, The latest reset: India and the United States amid Ukraine war. Blinken’s next-day comments were much more cordial:
After Blinken raised concerns about human rights in India, Jaishankar responded by saying India too has concerns about human rights in America. The next day, Blinken noted: “The US and India have always had much to learn from one another… interactions with Gandhi influenced a key figure in our nation’s journey: Martin Luther King, Jr. We share a special bond indeed.”
As to what happens next: I think it’s safe to say that India is not going to join the UK, and much of Europe, in entering the U.S. kennel, acting like a poodle happily yip yapping at America’s heels and allowing Washington to set the tone and course of its future relations with Russia – or any other country, for that matter.
Instead, as Dr. Sunandan Roy Chowdhury, editor of Eastern Review magazine, pointed out to me in a telephone interiew:
India will not toe a US line not only because of its understanding of its relationship with Russia, but also India is acutely aware of its geopolitical location in Asia, its biggest neighbour is China, and Russia and China are poles that India will not ignore because India knows if it does so, that will be in effect to the detriment of its own self-interest. Geostrategic reasons may even override the immediate economic benefits of cheap petrol.
As for the U.S.: Will Washington once again learn how to practice effective diplomacy? I’m not so sure. During recent decades, diplomatic skills seems to have been lost, forgotten or outright abandoned, both along the Potomac and in the extensive outside interactions between the United States and the wider world.