The Ukraine crisis spotlights the West’s need to understand India’s democratic decline

Russian President Vladimir Putin , Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a group photo prior to their trilateral meeting at the G20 Summit in June 2019 in Osaka, Japan. Slow economic growth and Modi’s domestic policy has made India find itself in company it does not want to be seen with. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
22 March, 2022

It is rather ironic that since the start of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, India’s policy response to the crisis has been remarkably akin to that of China. Their votes, or non-votes, in multilateral bodies have been identical, as they try to find a way around western sanctions to continue trade with Russia. India has found itself in company it does not want to be seen with. The problem runs deeper though. India’s anaemic economic growth has placed it in a bind while making tough foreign-policy choices. But it is the peculiar nature of domestic politics under Prime Minister Narendra Modi—espousing values which are at odds with everything the West espouses—which has made New Delhi look like a rabbit caught in the headlights of critical geopolitical shifts.

The Chinese have received all the bad press from the West, alongside the public ire of US officials. Meanwhile, India only gets a friendly nod from the same media, and a sympathetic ear in Washington. This intensity of official support for India in Washington is somewhat perplexing. Sample this: During a hearing last week, some members of the US Congress pushed Ely Ratner, the US assistant secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific security affairs, about India not standing with other members of the Quad in condemning Russia. The Quad is a strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the US. In response, Ratner launched a robust defence, arguing that, “We recognise that India has a complicated history and relationship with Russia. The majority of the weapons that they buy are from the Russians. The good news is that they are in a multi-year process of diversifying their arms purchases away from Russia … I think in terms of their relations with Russia, the trend lines are moving in the right direction.”

In a similar vein, amidst the US-led bans on trade with Russia, there has been no announcement about actions to be taken against India for getting the S-400 air defence system from Moscow. The delivery of the advanced weapon system to Indian began last year, which should have led to an immediate triggering of sanctions. But US officials, in their interactions with the press, continued to tiptoe around the subject of sanctions on India. The S-400 is a showpiece deal attracting global attention but other ongoing military deals with Russia are equally critical to India’s security.

India’s dependency on Russian military equipment is an undisputed fact. It is grounded in the historical legacy of ties between India and the erstwhile Soviet Union, which allowed India to build its military power after the 1962 War. An economically weak India was thus able to ward off Pakistan in 1965 and defeat it in 1971. The relationship continued even after the Cold War ended, as the Indian military was comfortable with Russian equipment and Russia needed a major buyer. As most major weapon systems have a life of three or four decades, the systems inducted in the past decade will remain in service for a few decades yet.

The diversification of India’s weapons procurement from other global suppliers did start in the new millennium, albeit slowly, constrained by two factors. Firstly, most western countries do not transfer high-end defence technology. In contrast, Russia first leased a nuclear submarine to India in the 1980s and has provided critical help for the development of an indigenous nuclear-attack submarine programme. It jointly developed the Brahmos cruise missile with India and supplied useful inputs for the development of other missiles. Often these technologies come as part of a package, where New Delhi buys other conventional equipment from Moscow at what may prima facie seem exorbitant prices. These are the kind of technologies that the US is unwilling to share even with its treaty allies. Confronting a bigger and technologically superior Chinese adversary, India simply cannot afford to abandon Russia.

The second factor is the exorbitant cost of western military weapons and platforms. India wanted to buy 126 fighter jets but settled for 36 Rafale aircraft from France at exorbitant rates. Even for small arms such as rifles, India had to reduce the quantity of SIG-716 rifles to be ordered from Sig Sauer in 2019, because of the high cost. The repeat order for 72,400 SIG-716 assault rifles is now about to be cancelled, which will be made up for by the AK203 rifles to be imported from Russia and to be subsequently produced in India. Similarly, India has reportedly cancelled the purchase of 30 Predator armed drones—the original requirement was 150—from the US because it would have cost an unaffordable $3 billion. Constrained by stuttering economic growth, India’s defence procurement budget cannot provide for the more expensive western military equipment.

If the Biden administration believes that the trend of India’s ties with Russia “is moving in the right direction,” it is either oblivious to these structural factors or wants to avoid unwarranted attention towards India at this point. The latter seems more likely, because of the desperate compulsion of the Biden administration to remain focused on countering China, amidst the turmoil in Europe. In any case, Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, with the Quad as its centrepiece, would be a non-starter without India. India was initially reluctant to embrace the Quad but was forced to join the partnership, after it failed to reverse the Chinese ingress into Indian territories in Ladakh in the summer of 2020. Even though Quad members have been at pains to clarify to China that the alliance is non-military, everyone recognises that the nature of the arrangement could change quickly.

India is particularly wary of poking Beijing in eye, being in its direct firing line. It is the only Quad member that shares a land border with China, and unlike Japan or Australia, is not a treaty ally of the US. The Modi government’s reluctance to confront China has been evident from its policy of not calling out Beijing for its territorial aggression. While Washington expected the Modi government to be more open about the Chinese threat after Ladakh, the government, from Prime minister Modi downwards, has resorted to euphemisms like “friction points” for areas of Chinese ingress, to avoid antagonising China. During this period, India has never criticised Beijing for its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, or for its new security law in Hong Kong. New Delhi’s support to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause has also been vacillating, calibrated to remain below the red lines drawn by Beijing.

The US wants India to pick a side. The Modi government also wants all the benefits of being a close partner of the US but is scared of being seen as a leading member of a geopolitical alliance against China. This hesitation is driven as much by the character of the Modi government as India’s relative weakness against China. As the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was barred from most western capitals for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots but was a regular visitor to China. He is at the helm of a project to shape a democracy with Indian characteristics, fuelled by majoritarian nationalism, not far from China’s own path under Xi Jinping.

The Modi government finds itself on the same page as China on the issues of human rights, climate change, the treatment of religious minorities and freedom of expression. The excuses of sovereignty and claims of Western hypocrisy emanating from Indian diplomats could well be coming from their Chinese counterparts. Essentially, a large section of middle-class and well-off Indians suffer from China-envy—authoritarian, centralised and powerful—and the Modi government is no different.

This has put Washington in a tough spot. To contrast India with China, the US harps on the euphemism of “shared values” to rationalise its partnership with India. But what are these shared values? Whether it is democracy, freedom of expression, religious freedom or the treatment of minorities, India’s record of such values under Modi has been abysmally poor. But the Biden administration continues to look away even as democracy erodes in India.

After downgrading India to an electoral autocracy last year, the V-Dem Institute has slotted India among the Top 10 autocratising nations this year. For the past two years, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended that the Biden administration designate India as “a country of particular concern.” The US State department has ignored them. Very vocal on Xinjiang, the US government has been silent on the human rights situation in Kashmir—which is not as bad as Xinjiang but still reprehensible.

The Biden administration’s complicity of silence on the egregious record of the Modi government is fettering India’s rise as a strong power in the region. A democratically weak India, as witnessed during the timid response during the Ladakh border crisis, will be less capable of standing up to China. India’s democratic revival is not merely an idealist utopia for the benefit of one-sixth of humanity, it is a realist imperative for the rest of the world.