Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 22 March 2022


Modi falls short over Ukraine

Much that was worthwhile emerged from Scott Morrison’s virtual summit on Monday with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, especially on bilateral commercial relations and prospects for a free-trade deal. But the blind eye that Mr Modi – leader of the world’s most populous democracy, esteemed as an upholder of the rule of law – is turning to the horror unfolding in Ukraine is doing India’s standing as a responsible global citizen no good.

Neither was it reassuring given India’s place as one of four partners in the Quad strategic alliance formed with Australia, the US and Japan as a bulwark for the defence of democracy and human rights in the Indo-Pacific at a time of heightened Chinese threats to invade Taiwan. In his remarks, Mr Morrison focused on Vladimir Putin’s brutal assault on democratic Ukraine’s sovereignty and its people, stressing the importance of “ensuring that those (similar) events do not occur in our Asia-Pacific region”. From Mr Modi, however, there was a bland continuation of New Delhi’s stance since the start of the crisis, with not a word of condemnation over Russia’s illegal invasion and its gross destruction.

Despite Mr Modi’s reputation as a tough, right-wing Hindu nationalist, his uncustomary servility is deeply rooted. Since the days of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty when a starry-eyed Indira Gandhi wrote glowing letters to her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, about life in the Soviet Union, India has become more enslaved to what is now Russia for military equipment. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, about 70 per cent of India’s current military arsenal is of Russian origin, reliant on Russian replenishment. About 80 per cent of its air force and 85 per cent of its naval vessels are of Russian origin. Its battle tanks, warships and fighter aircraft are almost entirely Russian. Its sole nuclear-powered submarine is leased from Russia.

That reliance, however, does not excuse the shameful stance the Modi government has taken since Mr Putin launched his bloodbath. The failure to speak out has played into the hands of the Kremlin, which has used New Delhi’s feeble stand to promote the fiction that much of the world, including other democracies such as South Africa, are unconcerned about the conduct of the war. The desperate people of Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities deserve better.

They are suffering direct attacks on civilians, with Russian warships targeting apartment blocks from the sea, and bombs being dropped on apartment blocks and a shopping centre in the heart of Kyiv. Russian soldiers have opened fire on unarmed protesters in the streets and, in ominous shades of Nazi Germany, thousands of Ukrainians are being rounded up and deported to Russia. More than 10 million people have fled their homes, including 3.5 million who have sought protection in other countries.

The images of Dresden-like destruction are horrifying. Amid the calamity, who can fail to be deeply moved by the death of 96-year-old Holocaust survivor Boris Romantschenko when Russian forces fired into his apartment block in Kharkiv? He survived four Nazi death camps but not this.

Mr Modi’s amoral tin ear plays into the hands of the Russian tyrant and his “best friend”, Chinese President Xi Jinping. Mr Xi doubtless is buoyed by New Delhi’s stance as he eyes a possible invasion of Taiwan, emboldened by the fact one of the Quad partners cannot even muster the courage to condemn Russia’s terror. Real statesmanship and concern for human rights and the rule of law deserve better than Mr Modi’s unconscionable cave-in.

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