Narendra Modi and His “Muscular Diplomacy”

India is developing military cooperation with the United States, Russia seeks to intensify ties with China and Pakistan. Is it possible for India and Russia to find a balance in their relations with these actors and remain strategic partners? M.K. Bhadrakumar, retired ambassador and columnist, argues about this.  

The United States gave outright military aid to Pakistan for decades. Advanced weaponry such as F-16 aircraft was given to Pakistan on concessional terms. The US consciously beefed up Pakistan’s offensive capabilities. Contrary to assurances from Washington, Pakistan fought wars with India on the strength of US military aid. 

Compared to the past, India today enjoys a far more comfortable position. Its defence budget is six or seven times bigger than Pakistan’s. A Pakistani military attack on India is simply inconceivable. Meanwhile, India’s own ties with the US are being touted as “a defining partnership”. To be sure, India will not allow a third party to interfere with its burgeoning ties with the US.

It stands to reason that India also should not be prescriptive about the nascent Russia-Pakistan relations. Therefore, why such hullabaloo? Indeed, there is a contrived tone in the angst India displays regarding Russia’s relations with Pakistan and China. This is to be attributed to the “muscular diplomacy” that is the trademark of the present government, which is rooted in the ideology of Hindu nationalism. Two smaller neighbors have experienced India’s wrath on account of their independent policies towards China.

However, the good thing is that Modi government is also selective in applying “muscular diplomacy”. Simply put, it is applicable only if Delhi feels that the other party is a stakeholder in the relationship. With regard to Russia or China, India estimates that they are stakeholders in the Indian market. The shift can be traced to the BRICS summit in Goa last year when Russia and China were not receptive to the Indian idea of condemning Pakistan as the “mother ship” of terrorism.

India’s policy toward Pakistan has “hardened” under the present government. The India-Pakistan tensions provide life blood for the ideology of “Hindutva”. In the Indian perception, China and Pakistan are colluding with the objective of stymying India’s aspirations. Specifically, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (the flagship of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative), Beijing’s attitude on India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and China’s blocking of the Indian attempt to put a Pakistani militant in the UN’s watch list on terrorists are seen as symptomatic of a concerted Sino-Pakistani strategy to contain India.

Indeed, all this is also playing out against the backdrop of the downhill slide in the India-China relations in the past 2-3 year period consequent upon the Modi government’s policies to bandwagon India with the US’ pivot strategy in Asia.

Given the above interplay, Russia’s relations with China and Pakistan are figuring in Indian discourses in zero sum terms. Many Indians who are identifiable with the US lobby, are fueling the mindset too, and their mala fide intentions are obvious.  

What can Russia do about such a scenario? Of course, rolling back Russia’s strategic partnership with China or mothballing the ties with Pakistan are non-options, since these are vital templates of Russia’s regional and global strategies.

Russia is a global power and it is unreasonable on India’s part to put pre-conditions on its relations with third countries. Russia is not being prescriptive about the pro-US slant in India’s foreign policies. (Nor is India in a position to influence the US’ strategic engagement with China, which both sides regard as their most consequential foreign-policy vector.)

Ideally, Russia can offer mediation to resolve India-Pakistan tensions. But then, India rejects third-party mediation. In fact, India maintains that there is nothing to discuss about Kashmir except the vacation of territories under Pakistan’s control.

The best scenario could be that India and Pakistan resume dialogue, but the prospects are bleak. One, so long as the crisis in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir (where Delhi is struggling to contain an Intifada-like mass upheaval) remains acute, India will spurn dialogue with Pakistan, since the government’s narrative is that the crisis is due to Pakistani interference. Two, Pakistan too is increasingly convinced that under the present ruling elite in Delhi, an improvement in relations is to be ruled out, given their Hindu nationalist agenda in India’s domestic politics.

Suffice it to say, India’s “muscular diplomacy” toward Russia narrows down to a carrot-and-stick approach. If Russia buckles under Indian pressure, it becomes bonanza for Indian diplomacy. It depends on the ingenuity of Russian diplomacy to navigate a way out of such a tricky situation. Perhaps, Russia too should not shy away from bringing on to the table the Indian ruling elite’s foreign-policy gravitation toward making India a junior partner to the US.

The good thing about politics is that we are all dead in the long run. The current Indian fixation with “muscular diplomacy” also will pass. Indeed, if “America First” doctrine gains traction in the US foreign policies, the ruling elite in Delhi will have to do some serious rethink. Therefore, a long-term perspective is needed on Russia’s part. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.