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India’s Underappreciated Realpolitik

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In December 2017, the Trump administration released its National Security Strategy (NSS), which spoke of India as a “leading global power and a stronger strategic and defense partner.” While India’s ties to the United States are currently close, they haven’t always been so. Indeed, despite being one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), India’s politics have, historically, been founded on a principle pragmatism and realpolitik, a trait which has often been underappreciated.

It is worth noting that until the end of the Cold War, and well in to the 1990’s following the Soviet Union’s collapse, India was primarily allied with the Soviet Union and its successor state the Russian Federation. It was a major importer of Soviet arms, sought the USSR’s help in tackling the joint might of the United States and Pakistan in 1971, sought the Russian Federation’s assistance in the 1998 nuclear tests, partnered with the Soviet Union on many global issues, and held many prominent cultural exchanges with them. Major shifts started taking shape in India’s approach to the global order as the era of economic globalization, liberalization, and privatization began to impact India’s economy. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, it was only a matter of time before the Russian Federation’s diminished economic status prevented it from being India’s benefactor. What remained, however, was an emotional attachment, likely due to a romanticizing of the past relationships.

The world order, which still has mercantilist motivations beneath a host of its policies, was going to have none and it was a matter of time before this relationship yielded to the test of economic interests. While India may have officially been recognized as an American strategic partner in 2017, and right wing parties in positions of leadership in both countries, this recognition has been a long time in coming. The foundations of this recognition can be traced back to Bill Clinton’s trip to India in 2000, during the Vajpayee regime. It was an uneven alliance of sorts between a right-wing government and a moderate Democratic government. Nevertheless, it was financial interests that paved the way for future relations following the diplomatic turmoil that had accompanied India’s nuclear tests in 1998, which resulted in American sanctions against India. Clinton’s visit to India, and the resulting improvements to relations between the two countries, was followed up with another milestone in 2005 – the 123 Agreement.

As part of the 123 Agreement, India agreed to place its civil nuclear facilities “under IAEA safeguards” while the United States agreed to full cooperation with India in the civilian nuclear sector. Although the deal has not been implemented until now, it was a significant shift and show of camaraderie on the part of both the governments. Other events, taking place in parallel, also contributed to the buildup of this change of relations.

Formal diplomatic relations with Israel, a strong American ally, began in 1992, after the American backed structural adjustment was accepted by the Indian legislature. Over the years, India has become the largest buyer of Israeli arms and has forged a strong partnership with Israel, despite its neutral stance with the oil-rich states hostile to Israel. India’s ties with Japan, another prominent American ally, took a new turn in the year 2000 with the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to India to cement their ties, which coincided with America’s acceptance of India. Almost two decades later, many Japanese companies are household names in India, and Japan is currently the 4th largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in India. Due to these strong cultural and military ties, both these countries have become important geo-strategic partners to India.

Although India’s ties with Russia did not completely cease during this period, there were significant chinks in the relationship. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Putin’s anti-American rhetoric brought India to cross-roads where a choice had to be made, at least for the sake of appearances. Modi’s focus on liberal economics ensured that relations with United States were not tainted. The Kremlin signed important agreements with Pakistan, a country that it had historically helped India oppose; also China’s most significant all weather ally.

Russia’s diplomatic ties with China have been increasing over the past few months. Putin’s attendance of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) meeting in 2017, which was vehemently opposed by India, put further strain on the relationship between the two countries How India tackles this growing Sino-Russia partnership will be decided by the Modi government, which is likely to form the government again when India goes to polls in 2019. It is worth noting here that in some regards Modi hasn’t diverted from the stances of his predecessors, particularly on China. His proximity to China was well noted and publicized during his time as Chief Minister of Gujarat, one of the richest states in India in terms of per capita income. However, with his election to Prime Minister, this bonhomie hasn’t lived up to its earlier potential.

Similarly, Trump’s dalliances with Kremlin were well splashed all across the news during the American Presidential elections. Thus, to declare it as a threat within the National Security Strategy is quite the turnaround; or maybe be just a façade. Both United States and Russia face diminished soft power and tarnished global appeal and reliability. Trump’s election to the White House, Russia’s adventures in Crimea and Putin’s global rhetoric has contributed significantly to this.

Faced with a difficult choice, India had to choose the lesser of the two evils. India ultimately has made the wise decision to align itself with the United States. By considering a broad, long-term strategic, its decision to side with the United States has paid dividends, with America reciprocating in kind. While historically, India has undertaken a pragmatic approach to secure its strategic, energy and security needs, without causing much imbalance to the political equations of any region or country; India has decided to formally align itself with the one of the major powers. As a case in point; at the beginning of the year 2017, Iran was India’s third largest oil supplier, having sold 19.8 million tons in the first 9 months of Fiscal Year 2017, while Saudi Arabia was its second, supplying just over 30 million tons. Apart from having cordial and strategic relations with both these countries, despite their mutual animosity towards each other, India is also a strategic defense partner with Israel, a country with longstanding hostile relations with both aforementioned nations.

Therein lays India’s underappreciated real politic where it has kept its interests intact while forging alliances in a difficult geopolitical spectrum. The viability of this as India grows in power and stature is worth debating, but until now India has successfully threaded the needle and maintained a state of balance in the geo-political sphere.

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