Russia’s interests in India have been growing since Stalin’s death in 1953. Khrushchev and Bulganin inaugurated a Third World policy that brought the leaders to India and took Nehru to Moscow, all in 1955. In the same year, when Asian and African nations met at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, Russian newspapers celebrated the event as a “sign of our age.” The Indian establishment was enthusiastic that Stalin’s successors had discarded his “dim view of India.” During the Cold War, the relationship had more flow than ebb. In times of the three crises – the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 – India chose not to use condemnatory language against Russian foreign policy.
Russia, for its part, was seen as a steadfast supporter of India in the United Nations Security Council, particularly with respect to the Kashmir dispute and India’s nuclear ambitions. In the past five years, the two countries have also come together as part of the BRICS grouping. Over the past sixty years, growing bilateral relations give the impression that their foreign policies are entirely compatible with each other. A comparison between Hungary, 1956 and Crimea, 2014 sheds some light on the question of intervention and how India has approached crises borne out of Russian interventionism.
During the Hungarian Revolution, Nehruvian non-alignment was put to the test when India had a delayed and diluted response to the events unfolding in Hungary, and Russian occupation of Budapest. Until much later in the course of events, Nehru refused to align himself with any initiative taken by the Americans and Eisenhower was quite certain Nehru was “falling for the Moscow line – buying their entire bill of goods.” Afraid that all-round condemnation might isolate Russia, Nehru kept up correspondence with Bulganin, and with Tito, whose counsel he regarded highly in this matter. The Indian consulate in Budapest kept sending reports of two separate and successive attempts by Soviet troops to suppress the revolt. These, coupled with immense domestic pressure, particularly from leading political figures such as J. B. Kripalani and J. P. Narayan, brought into question Nehru’s own ambivalence on Russia’s interventionism.
When at last, Nehru was convinced that the Hungarian uprising was of a nationalist character, and not organized by fascist elements, he criticized the Russian leadership and stirred Indian diplomatic efforts into action. In the end, India became more and more critical of Russia’s actions, and demanded that the UN be allowed to do its job, and send an observer team under the supervision of the Secretary General, along with medical supplies and aid materials. However, with the West, led by the US, he maintained a firm position that allowed no condemnation of Russia. Nehru sought to apply the Gandhian method of “leaving the door open” while standing on principle. In fact, he saw Indian non-alignment as putting India in that unique place, where she was able and willing to mediate between contradictory positions.
Without explicitly invoking non-alignment, Indian Prime Minister Modi has taken an identical position on the problem of Crimea, an erstwhile Russian-majority province of Ukraine that broke away and declared its intention to join Russia in early 2014. Modi has said that India’s effort will be “to sit together and talk, and to resolve problems in an ongoing process.” Indeed, Modi has also referred to nations who “want to give advice” and has obliquely said, “they too have sinned in some way”. The remarkable parallel with 1956 is Nehru’s utter disdain for the West’s censure of Russia because Britain and France had simultaneously attacked Egypt in what came to be known as the Suez Canal Crisis. In both cases then, and now again vis-à-vis Crimea, India has made it amply clear that her position on any issue was rooted in her assessment of the issue, and was independent of Western or American thinking.
In December 2014, when Vladimir Putin visited New Delhi for annual summit talks with Modi, he was unofficially accompanied by acting president of Crimea, Sergei Aksyono, causing a great deal of controversy and blistering statements from Washington D.C. Responding to the furor, a foreign ministry official said India and Russia agreed on the need to “diffuse Cold War-like tensions” while public commentators maintained that one could not “reproach your friends in public.” Yet again, these aspects of Indian foreign policy seem to be in constant replay since they were first articulated in the 1950s. At that time, Krishna Menon and Nehru corresponded on various occasions, and particularly with regard to leaders friendly towards India – Gamal Abdel Nasser, Nikolai Bulganin, and Chou En-Lai – to say that Nehru would express his disapproval privately, and that it would carry more weight and do less damage than if India were to speak publicly in its capacity as a member of the UN. Almost as if he were heeding their caution, Modi’s statements on China’s actions in the east and south China Seas and Russia’s actions in Crimea have expressed faith in these countries, and have been reminders to both states that they were expected to act in consonance with international law, failing which they would find themselves in isolation.
Although the ruling political dispensation in India has changed over the years, when it comes to Russia, Indian foreign policy has remained rather constant. This enduring feature is most evident when the question of intervention comes up. Thus, even though India officially follows a policy of non-intervention, this has not brought her in active dispute with Russia. Indeed, the most obvious exception to the Indian policy found in Bangladesh 1971, was supported by Russia, and India rewarded Russian support with a treaty of friendship and cooperation between both countries. The relations between India and Russia are built on this extraordinary ability to reproduce a sense of harmony. Analysts often attribute this bonhomie to a range of economic incentives, including widening cooperation on space programmes, atomic energy and military technology. Certainly, these are components of a successful relationship, but cannot and do not constitute the bedrock of political thinking.
The founding political ideas of these two states were previously considered distraught, but have now acquired certain adjacency, blunted by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the beginning Indian economic liberalisation, both arriving in 1991. Both states have had to satisfy domestic audiences that they will not be made pariahs. For India, this was a particularly compelling move in the aftermath of both rounds of nuclear testing in 1974 and again in 1998. New Delhi has understood Russian interventionism in this light, that of the outcomes and sanctions it brings from the international community. Although there have been murmurs of disapproval whenever Russia has intervened, occupied, or annexed neighboring territory, India has, for the most part, addressed it in broad sweep, focusing instead on one of the many other less thorny issues in its employ. In years to come, with other mutual concerns such as terrorism, secessionism, and emerging economies dominating their relations, a muted Indian response on Russian interventionism is par for the course.
Swapna Kona Nayudu is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.
India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania and partially funded by the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI and the Khemka Foundation. IiT articles are re-published in the op-ed pages of The Hindu: Business Line. This article can be read here.
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