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India: Modi at Hiroshima — optics, politics, reality

Modi travelled to Hiroshima with an eye on his upcoming state visit to the US (June 21-24.) Besides, there have been signals from the Biden Administration lately that a kinder look at India’s pleas for technology transfer may be possible.  

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Indian delegates sled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi attending the G7 2023 in Hiroshima recently [Photo Credit: G7]

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits abroad are carefully choreographed events, given their optics domestically. Perhaps, this is even more so today as general elections loom ahead and in Hiroshima, Modi was taking the stage after the crushing defeat in the Karnataka election, which was as much political for the ruling  BJP as personal for Modi himself. 

But the optics were great. President Biden who is a past master in the art of flattery stooped to conquer Modi, even seeking an autograph and remarking that he envied the latter’s “popularity”. 

It must be one of the paradoxes of our disjointed times that Hiroshima, a sleepy, southwestern coastal city, was handpicked as the setting for the G7 summit for its symbolism to “send out a strong message” against nuclear weapons. But it is a reminder too the United States is still the only country that ever used the atomic bomb as a weapon, when it dropped “Little Boy” on Hiroshima in 1945 — quite unnecessarily as historians since concluded — killing an estimated 140,000 people and turning the theory of nuclear warfare into a terrifying reality. 

Hiroshima was turned on its head to censure Russia and China. Innuendos were galore at the G7 summit packed with world leaders who preach one thing and practice something entirely different. The UK PM Rishi Sunak flew into Hiroshima after supplying depleted uranium munitions to Kiev, which soon exploded in the central Ukrainian city of Khmelnytsky, leading to a significant increase in gamma radiation levels that could contaminate the earth in surrounding areas for decades. 

The G7 was dripping with doublespeak. The erstwhile colonial powers waxed eloquently about “economic coercion” but craftily excluded South Africa as special invitee and instead chose Comoros. Why Comoros? Because, Comoros’ most significant international relationship is with the erstwhile colonial power France, which will guarantee its good behaviour at Hiroshima.

To be sure, the cynical spectacle at Hiroshima couldn’t have escaped Modi’s attention. His “undiplomatic” remarks at the Working session 9 of the G7 Summit — on the ludicrous reality of the UN being a mere “talking shop”; the imperative need for respect for the UN Charter, International Law and sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries; the unilateral attempts to change the status quo and so on would have made western leaders present in his audience squirm with embarrassment. 

Even if that was not Modi’s intention, what he stated — commas, semi-colons and full stops included — actually epitomised the US’ continued illegal occupation of one-third of the territory of Syria, which was, by the way, one of the original members of the UN since 24th October 1945. The G7 presents a pathetic spectacle, indeed.       

However, it was Modi’s meeting with Ukraine’s president Zelensky that brought out his outstanding techniques of communication. Even the insipid MEA readout written in staccato English brings out the flavour of their brief conversation. 

Modi made three key points: one, for him, Ukraine war is not a political or economic issue but “an issue of humanity, of human values.” Two, India supports dialogue and diplomacy “to find a way forward” and is willing to lend a hand in conflict resolution. Three, India will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Ukraine. 

We don’t know how Zelensky handled this tricky conversation. Perhaps, he actually limited himself to brief Modi “on the current situation in Ukraine.” Modi’s remarks message that he stuck to India’s neutrality and neatly side-stepped the tendentious issues concerning the genesis of the Ukraine crisis or the complexities of Russia’s confrontation with the West, leave alone the core issue of NATO’s expansion into Ukraine (which Zelensky inherited) and the country’s loss of sovereignty. 

Instead, Modi took to high ground and harped on the human suffering due to the war and stressed the primacy of “dialogue and diplomacy”. We may never know whether this would have caused uneasiness in Zelensky’s mind, although finger pointing wouldn’t have been Modi’s intention. 

Ironically, but for a series of blunders on the part of Zelensky, the war wouldn’t have erupted or escalated to the current level of violence — his rejection of the Minsk agreements that provided for provincial autonomy to the Donbass within a federal union; his obduracy to pursue a military solution to Donbass’ alienation; his retraction from the Istanbul deal in late March last year within weeks of Russian intervention due to the back seat driving by the US and UK who had their own agenda to force regime change in Moscow. 

Modi, perhaps, got carried away to stake his personal prestige in a conflict resolution in Ukraine. Clearly, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Neither will Biden accept the spectre of military defeat and Ukrainian state’s meltdown nor will Russia compromise on what it considers sees to be an existential war. 

The government shouldn’t be delusional about an enchanting prospect of India leading the West and Russia the door that never really opened in the post-cold war era into a rose garden. It simply isn’t there. Neither has India the credentials nor the clout to be a peacemaker. 

What is really disheartening is that a great opportunity was lost for Modi to hold the hands of Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and pool their intellectual resources — two giants who champion the Global South. But then, Washington may have queered the pitch by derailing Zelensky’s appointment with Lula. (Zelensky failed to show up.) 

Modi travelled to Hiroshima with an eye on his upcoming state visit to the US (June 21-24.) Besides, there have been signals from the Biden Administration lately that a kinder look at India’s pleas for technology transfer may be possible.  

Western pressures will continue on Modi government to give up its neutrality on Ukraine. The European Union has lately waded into the topic formally. (See my article EU calls out India on Russia sanctions.) But trust India to push back. The surest sign of it is Modi’s  reversion to “hug diplomacy,” the appeal of EAM Jaishankar’s abrasive style to BJP’s “core constituency” in the social media notwithstanding 

The heart of the matter is that the strategic ties that bind India and Russia signify a mutually beneficial partnership that is fully in conformity with international law and imbued with a “win-win” spirit and mutual trust and confidence in a volatile international climate of which Ukraine is only a symptom. 

The objective reality is that the India-Russia energy cooperation, which is an eyesore for the West, may even deepen, given the mutual interest. Bloomberg reported in the weekend that oil trade apart, in April, China and India also accounted for more than two-thirds of Russia’s coal exports to Asia and that set to further increase in the coming weeks due to the emergence of El Nino, a recurring warm climate pattern that could cause droughts in the region. 

According to a study in the prestigious journal Science, this year’s El Nino is expected to develop between May and July and is likely to be especially strong. Bloomberg quoted an expert opinion: 

“The worst place to be right now amid these searing temperatures is South Asia… When you can’t even take care of your people’s basic needs, it’s very hard to care too much about international affairs… [South Asians] are asking themselves: would I rather risk falling afoul of the US or forgo steep discounts on energy?”

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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