M K Bhadrakumar |
The South China Morning Post jogged our memory by retrieving from the archives of the Wilson Centre in Washington the transcript of a conversation between the then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and the Chinese leadership regarding the deteriorating India-China relations. The conversation took place in September 1959. Khrushchev was visiting China to attend the National Day celebrations marking the tenth anniversary of the Chinese Revolution.
Also present at the meeting were the unofficial chief ideologue of the CPSU Politburo Mikhail Suslov and the Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. From the Chinese side, Mao Zedung was flanked by First Vice-Chairman of the CCP Liu Shaoqi, Premier Zhou En-Lai, Vice-Premier Lin Biao, CCP Politburo member Peng Zhen, Vice-Premier and Foreign Minister Marshal Chen Yi.
One constant, however, between then and now stands out: the bonding between the Russian and Indian leaderships. Modi’s recent visit to St. Petersburg testifies to that.
The backdrop was tumultuous: Khrushchev’s historic visit to India in 1954 was blossoming into a deep friendship between the two countries; Sino-Soviet ideological schism was brewing (largely unknown to the outside world); the high noon of the Cold War was approaching; and China was lurching toward the Great Leap Forward (aimed at transforming the country’s agrarian economy into a socialist society through rapid industrialization and collectivization.)
Meanwhile, Tibet had risen in revolt; Dalai Lama had fled to India, and the first border skirmishes between India and China had occurred and the territorial dispute had sailed into view. The transcript brings out the following two key elements:
Today’s India, on the other hand, has an ad-hoc approach. It lacks the ‘big picture’. Its intellectual resources are sadly depleted and moral fiber has weakened.
- Khrushchev had developed bonding with Jawaharlal Nehru following the latter’s two visits in quick succession (1955 and 1957) to USSR. Moscow had begun appreciating India’s non-alignment and the Soviet Union was apprehensive of the collateral damage from the Sino-Indian dispute;
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- Moscow found fault with the Chinese leadership’s Tibet policies, especially in its failure to anticipate the revolt and prevent Dalai Lama from fleeing to India; Moscow was not willing to endorse China’s version of the skirmishes on the Indian border.
There were animated exchanges, but Khrushchev was brusque and dismissive. Clearly, he had a closed mind and reacted to the Chinese entreaties with the mulishness of a Ukrainian peasant.
The transcript makes engrossing reading even as India and China are once again tottering on the abyss. History never repeats, but the man always does; therefore, today’s bleached landscape carries remnants of the past.
Fundamentally, Sino-Russian ties today are at their highest point in history – all but a quasi-alliance. On the other hand, India-Russia relations are a pale shadow of what they used to be. Of course, this is largely the cumulative outcome of a policy of benign neglect of Russia ties, pursued by successive Indian governments. (Just look at some of the choices we made as our ambassadors to the Kremlin – as if we hand-picked people who could be trusted to mothball the relationship.)
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Fundamentally, Sino-Russian ties today are at their highest point in history – all but a quasi-alliance. On the other hand, India-Russia relations are a pale shadow of what they used to be.
To be sure, Prime Minister Modi shares Nehru and Indira Gandhi’s awareness of the centrality of Russia’s friendship. But does that conviction percolate down? India’s western-oriented elites were always the same, but the mitigating factor used to be the larger-than-life ambiance of Indo-Soviet friendship – thanks not only to India’s left-leaning intelligentsia but also to popular sentiments. Today, Russia ties have become Modi’s portfolio. That has its strengths, of course, because he is a Colossus – as the recent upswing in relations shows – but in systemic terms it is deficient.
Then, there is the broader canvas. The India-Russia relations are truly dynamic because Russian foreign policy and diplomacy operate in co-relation with the world order and the functioning of the international system, given its commitment to maintaining global strategic stability. Today’s India, on the other hand, has an ad-hoc approach. It lacks the ‘big picture’. Its intellectual resources are sadly depleted and moral fiber has weakened.
The Logistics Agreement with the US; India-US Joint Vision Statement on Asia-Pacific; Malabar Exercises; US’ ascendancy as India’s defense partner – all this happened when the rest of the world was staring at the specter of a New Cold War.
The backdrop was tumultuous: Khrushchev’s historic visit to India in 1954 was blossoming into a deep friendship between the two countries.
And, ironically, all this took place under a government which subscribes to nationalism. Whereas, India has everything to gain by strengthening its strategic autonomy.
Thankfully, we may never get to read the transcript of a conversation between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping regarding Indian policies. The Modi government’s “muscular diplomacy” toward China probably embarrasses Russia — and, perhaps, even the US and European powers.
One constant, however, between then and now stands out: the bonding between the Russian and Indian leaderships. Modi’s recent visit to St. Petersburg testifies to that. Putin spent hours with Modi, far beyond the calls of the protocol. Khrushchev made warm references to Nehru in his conversation with Mao and his fervor for friendship with India was palpable. Putin is no different. The South China Morning Post report is here.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.