Why vested interests are hell-bent on dragging India into a distant conflict in Ukraine

India already has a hostile Pakistan and an aggressive China to contend with. Add in grumpy Russia and the disaster is complete

Abhishek Banerjee February 12, 2022 18:04:52 IST
Why vested interests are hell-bent on dragging India into a distant conflict in Ukraine

Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces walks on a trench on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near to Avdiivka, Donetsk, southeastern Ukraine, on 8 January, 2022. AFP

The other day, while addressing the media at the White House, US President Joe Biden issued a stern warning. If Russia invades Ukraine, they can forget about the crucial oil pipeline now under construction from Russia to Germany. The economic costs of such an action would, therefore, be too heavy for the Russians. Unfortunately for President Biden though, the German Chancellor happened to be in the same room at the same time. When the media posed the same question to him, the latter refused to say anything of this sort.

In the world of diplomatic niceties, this is the kind of epic beizzati of the Biden administration that can only be captured by some kind of meme. The writing is on the wall. Nobody wants Biden's war; not Germany, not India, not even Ukraine. The Washington establishment, however, continues to press on. It says that a Russian invasion is imminent.

Not surprisingly, the Indian government has abstained from the procedure vote on Ukraine at the UN Security Council. Why would India want to take sides in a distant conflict in Eastern Europe, that too at the cost of damaging ties with Russia? By all accounts, the Indian public couldn’t care less about this subject.

But sections of the Indian elite, spread both in India and abroad, have other ideas. They insist that the conflict is a moral crisis, and India must choose the side of the 'free' world. A number of articles have appeared in Indian newspapers and news portals advocating this, as well as in the three newspapers that make up the Washington bubble. These are written by think tank experts and veteran journalists on the foreign policy beat, who are compromised to varying degrees, as well as by young writers on their first 'scholarship'. They all say the same thing. They quote unnamed US officials and ambassadors from Eastern Europe, who speak of all the moral and material benefits of siding with Washington. At least one well-known commentator spilled the beans outright. The think tanks say that India has lost its status as a liberal democracy in the last few years. If Modi wants to win back this tag, India should get on the right side of Washington’s war. The anxiety within the Biden administration is palpable.

Why Biden needs this war

Last year when Joseph R Biden Jr was sworn in as the forty-sixth President of the United States, the American establishment breathed a collective sigh of relief. For a while, big media, big business, big academia and big tech were all eating out of his hands. And for the most part, they still do. They couldn’t get enough of the new old President and his two dogs, the images of him eating ice-cream, being a devout Catholic, his watch and sunglasses, and pretty much anything else that doesn’t actually matter. Despite all the promises, when the pandemic continued to ravage the nation and Americans died in unprecedented numbers, they stood by him.

Except in August and September, when the media gleefully tore apart the Biden administration over his handling of Afghanistan. The withdrawal was botched for sure, but nevertheless it was an end to America's longest war. That was the problem. Wars cost money. And when the government stops spending on them, the defence contractors in Washington lose out. The US military budget is a staggering $700 billion, bigger than the next seven or eight countries combined. That is why lobbies in Washington like to keep wars going on forever.

And now the Biden administration is in dire straits, with the President’s approval down to a measly 33 per cent in some polls. The disenchantment with the President is visible across all sections of people. With mid-term elections only nine months away, it is time to press the panic button.

Biden knows what to do, at least to get the establishment back on his side. And they have responded to his call with predictable enthusiasm. They swallow without question, and then repeat, every claim of the Biden administration about an imminent invasion of Ukraine. In fact, they embellish such claims with additional source-based reporting, and somber declarations of how every intelligence agency in the world agrees with their assessment. Just as they did with the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Fool me once, even Bush used to say.

Getting involved in Ukraine would be a disaster for India

Imagine for a moment that India gets on board with the Biden administration in Ukraine. The actual war may never happen, but consider the consequences for India. For one, India would come to be seen as a client state of the US, and ties with Russia would be permanently damaged. How does it help for India to ruin our relationship with our number one weapons supplier? We already have a hostile Pakistan and an aggressive China to contend with. Add in grumpy Russia and the disaster is complete.

Who would gain from this? China, of course. The close relationship between Moscow and New Delhi has always been a stumbling block for the Chinese. As it is, if there are US sanctions on Russia, it will only make Russia get closer to China for their economic needs.

Who else would gain? American defence contractors, who would very much like to replace Russia as our weapons supplier. Keep in mind however that the American military establishment is much larger than its Russian counterpart. As a big buyer of Russian weapons, India has significant leverage over the Russian establishment. With America, we would have much less bargaining power.

Last year, the Biden administration swooped in and announced an alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom (AUKUS), which they say would be the backbone of their policy in the Asia-Pacific. Among other things, this meant an abrupt cancellation of a $66 billion submarine contract to France from Australia. The officials of France, which also happens to be America’s oldest ally, learned about this only from media reports. Against this backdrop, the ravings of Indian elites who say that New Delhi has some kind of moral obligation to pick a side in Ukraine, seem almost like dark humour. It also raises the more disturbing question: What do Indian elites who are pushing the line of Washington hope to gain from this?

Made-up intolerance narrative is about making India pay ransom

Nothing is free in international relations, not even the so-called foreign aid. So what do we make of the exaggerated concern in foreign media over the last few years about the state of democracy in India? What do we make of those press freedom rankings and absurd labels such as ‘electoral autocracy?’

If you live in India, you have probably watched an entire class of civil society find lucrative careers in the protest economy. They got rich by calling the government ‘fascist’. So you couldn’t seriously believe that there is no freedom of expression in India. But these foreign newspapers and foreign think tanks; what are they so worked up about?

Well, now we know. They buy influence inside India and put themselves in charge of India’s image abroad. Now they demand ransom. To rescue our image, we need to join their moral crusade in Eastern Europe, and switch weapons suppliers. Liberal democracy is important, but it is nice when things work out so perfectly.

Observe of course that this moral urgency is utterly one sided. Has the Western liberal establishment taken a similar moral stance in favour of India against China? Instead, they spent the last eight years trying to paint India as an autocracy, no different from China. In other words, the intolerance narrative was an alibi created by the global elite to excuse themselves should China ever threaten India with war. And they want to use it as a bargaining chip to make India abandon our interests and join their war in Eastern Europe.

Two things have happened in the last few weeks which should ensure that nobody in India trusts the global elite ever again. One is the plain ransom-seeking from India over the conflict in Ukraine. The other is the Canadian Prime Minister cracking down on protesters in Ottawa, after all his moral grandstanding over ‘farmer protests’ in Delhi. If you now know how these lobbies work, thank a Canadian trucker.

India can have both Russia and the US as strategic partners

Unlike what think tank elites would have you believe, it is not impossible to have two strategic partners who are polar opposites of each other. It is not even that difficult, nor is it particularly uncommon. Israel does it, coordinating closely with both Russia and the United States. In fact, Israel has taken almost the same exact position on Ukraine that India has. They also don't see a war happening any time soon, nor are they particularly interested in the subject.

In turn, the United States has deep strategic relationships with both Israel and Saudi Arabia. The latter are enemies, at least on paper. Shall we see the liberal establishment say any time soon that America's foreign policy must choose between Saudi Arabia and Israel, or between Saudi Arabia and Qatar? Or for that matter, between Pakistan and India?

I would not hold my breath. In the 1980s, the CIA procured weapons from the Jewish state of Israel, as well as Kalashnikov rifles made in Communist China, and supplied them to Islamic fundamentalists to fight the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan. As such, anyone asking for India to make some kind of urgent moral choice between America and Russia probably has an agenda of their own.

Compromised Indian elites can no longer be trusted

If there is any clarity that emerges from this tug of war, it is this. Indian elites and elites of Indian origin, especially those affiliated with foreign think tanks or those who profit from foreign media, can no longer be trusted completely. These individuals manage to inject themselves freely into matters of domestic and foreign policy. In this, they usually do not encounter the natural suspicion with which we would regard any other foreign entity that meddles in Indian affairs. That age of innocence is over.

India is now a very powerful country. With this power, there comes a class of people whose objective is to lobby for bits and pieces of this power, to launder all over the world. This is the transnational elite. They do not owe allegiance to any nation or any people anywhere, but they benefit from power everywhere. They are very good at building narratives, and presenting the same moral emergencies. The narrative of intolerance, the baiting of India into a distant conflict in Eastern Europe, is only a beginning.

We can never completely get rid of this class of transnational elites. Because it is in the nature of power to attract them. But with practice, we can learn to recognise them, identify their motives, and then ignore them.

Abhishek Banerjee is an author and columnist. Views expressed are personal.

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