In defense of Modi’s India

James Snell is a writer and researcher. He has written for Spectator World, Foreign Policy and other outlets

The democratic world is disunited. 

More or less artfully concealed, disagreements on the fate of Ukraine emerge among NATO members almost weekly, and in Asia and the Pacific, democracies are nominally holding together. While all finally appreciate and are prepared to counter the threat to peace posed by a newly belligerent China, in practice, diplomacy between them is still, in part, an airing of decades- or centuries-long grievances. Especially when it comes to India. 

India and the government of Narendra Modi remain an unknown quantity, eyed suspiciously from Europe. Even with the country now a member of the Quad — a group including the United States, Australia and Japan, designed to align Indo-Pacific democracies against Beijing — and the European Commission establishing a joint European Union-Indian Trade and Technology Council in late April, agreement doesn’t always reign. 

To hear some European functionaries tell it, one would think India was on the same level as China when it comes to assisting Russia’s management of its newfound pariah status. But despite conflicting visions, this simply isn’t the case. It overlooks the importance of building closer ties — even if difficult. 

During her trip to New Delhi in April, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen optimistically declared EU-Indian cooperation on green energy could prove vital for Europe’s escape from the vice of Russian oil and gas. Meanwhile, India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar simply said that he and von der Leyen “exchanged views on the economic and political implications of the Ukraine conflict.” 

What he left out is more significant. 

Like Europe, India has long bought much of its natural gas, and a little of its oil, from Russia. But unlike Europe, India has shown little inclination to change suppliers.  

On the contrary, India has significantly increased its oil imports from Russia since the war began. In January, Russia was the country’s ninth largest source of oil, and now, according to some analysts, it’s the second largest. This isn’t a subversion of the global sanctions regime, so much as it is basic economics. It’s estimated that India is purchasing Russian crude at what amounts to a significant discount of the global oil price.  

This is a conflict of visions. European leaders earnestly debate whether their populations will tolerate mild economic sacrifices to sanction Russia. India’s leaders don’t believe its already-struggling people should have to make such sacrifices. So, while Europe’s leaders have announced a determination — slow and lumbering though it may be — to escape Russian energy monopolies, India has no such intention. 

Part of this is also historical. India — especially with a nationalist government — can’t forgive white countries, or follow their injunctions, all that easily. A fair amount has been said in the Indian papers, and on social media, that one colonial power is much like another, and if it happens to be Ukraine’s turn to suffer, that really is too bad. 

A recent editorial in one of India’s larger English papers The Hindu states the more politic perspective: that peace is preferable to war — and better for business — and Russia bears most (but by no means all) of the responsibility for ensuring peace comes about. NATO-led sanctions have failed to crush the Russian economy and should also, perhaps, be reconsidered. There’s no need for other economies to join the charge. 

In a war that’s about preventing the reemergence of wars of conquest, Europeans aren’t wholly wrong to think this spirit somewhat blinkered and uncooperative. 

However, at least a small part of European and American suspicion toward India is long out of date — left over from a Cold War in which the country was considered too economically left to be wholly outside the Soviet sphere, and in which — incredibly — Pakistan was believed to be a more reliable and friendly ally. 

These disagreements, especially on questions of history, are more emotive than practical, and they can be overcome. Despite its ideological disagreements with Western Europe and the United States, under Modi, India wishes to establish closer ties with Europe. And common sense won’t allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to stand in its way. 

If India refrains from openly acknowledging Putin’s war as legitimate, and manages to steer clear of open sanctions-busting, friendly coexistence and increasing economic closeness between it and Europe can continue. 

But even if tensions are abated on the Ukraine question, other problems still loom. Modi is a nationalist at a time when Europe’s elites are ever more repulsed by that style of politics. His hostility toward India’s Muslim minority had Europe’s back up from the moment he looked likely to win power, and European leaders have seen little in the years since to change their minds.  

European and American liberals have even increasingly placed Modi alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as, at best, a similarly destructive and uncontainable ally or, at worst, tagged both him and India as integral parts of an “authoritarian” and “post-liberal” wave sweeping the world.  

Certainly, under Modi, India has enjoyed good relations with Putin’s Russia and, no doubt, it might benefit in some way from the relative decline of Europe and the United States. But there are limits. 

Some analysts overrun themselves, appearing to suggest — wrongly — that there are positives to be found for India in the “multipolar” world of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s design. 

This is overly hasty. After all, China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road seems not only designed to circumnavigate India but also to cut it out of a new species of global trade, conceived with China at its heart. They can read those maps in New Delhi too. 

So, as von der Leyen contends, cooperation — even while talking past each other — is preferable to Europe keeping its distance.  

Though Modi’s India is unlikely to be made to see eye to eye with the Europeans on Ukraine, so long as it doesn’t come — uncharacteristically — to Russia’s aid, it’s neither in India’s interests nor its history to abandon Europe in favor of a shrinking, extractive economy and an ailing tyrant. 

And if Russia is made — in part by European efforts — to lose its war, Indian ambivalence can hardly overcome that fact.