07.10.22 Review

Left-right "Anti-colonialism": why India does not support Western sanctions

One of the factors contributing to the low effectiveness of Western sanctions against Russia is the position of developing countries and, especially, the Asian economic giants, China and India. While no one expected China, the leader of the authoritarian world, to sympathize with the West's sanctions policy, India, considered a democratic country and China's main regional rival, could have potentially become a member of the sanctions coalition. However, not only India's long-standing ties with the Soviet Union and Russia but also the right-wing nationalist trend in Indian politics prevented this from happening, experts at The Hague Center for Strategic Studies believe. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who represents this trend, and Vladimir Putin are similar in their foreign policy platform of "reactive internationalism". As a result, the China-India rivalry appears to be a less important factor than the differences between the new "nationalist" India and the West.

With Western countries constantly increasing sanctions pressure on the Kremlin, China and India are the primary buyers of Russian commodities due to restrictions on their consumption in Europe and partially compensate for Russia's import losses. But if China, from the beginning, acted as Moscow's passive ally and, apparently, was warned by Putin about the upcoming invasion, everyone would perceive India as Asia's largest democracy, and more loyalty could be expected from its position toward the Western coalition.

The fundamental factors determining the Indian government's relations with Russia are well known and have been developing for a long time, the authors of the report "India and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine", published by The Hague Center for Strategic Studies, say. In the 1960s, when Jawaharlal Nehru led India, the USSR and India were united by a left-wing anti-colonial agenda. The Soviet Union recognized India's sovereignty over Kashmir. It provided the country with economic and military aid, which, among other things, was one of the reasons for the deterioration of Soviet-Chinese relations. The USSR supported India's nuclear tests. After its collapse, Russia, which maintained its position as India's largest arms supplier, advocated the country's inclusion in the UN Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Therefore, the India-Soviet and India-Russia partnership is an important and institutionalized element of India's modern statehood and India's global positioning. 

Close military ties between India and Russia persist to this day. In 2014, Putin announced that this partnership would grow through a joint venture system, and shortly before that, Russia and India had jointly developed the BrahMos cruise missile system. According to various estimates, the authors of the report claim that Russia contributes 60 to 85 % of India's military equipment. The high level of Russia's integration into India's defense-industrial complex cannot be overcome in the short term.

However, there is more to it. If, in Soviet times, India was close to the USSR due to its leftist anti-colonial agenda, now it is precisely the opposite. Indian politics in the past decade has been dominated by the right-wing Indian People's Party, while Delhi's anti-colonial ideology is now based on right-wing nationalist rhetoric. The report's authors point to similarities between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's views with Vladimir Putin's foreign policy rhetoric and define their common ideological basis as "reactive internationalism". Reactive internationalism rejects liberal values preferring a world order based on national differences and multipolarity. (The main slogan of the Indian People's Party in the 2014 elections, which brought it a victory, was: "Nationalism is our inspiration. Development and good governance are our goals.)

In 2015, Barack Obama declared that the U.S. could become India's closest partner. However, there was neither a severe program nor sufficient political grounds behind this statement. On the contrary, relations between the two countries became more difficult as issues of democracy and human rights in India became more and more acute. Since 2021, Freedom House no longer classifies India as a "free" country and classifies it as "partly free"; in the same year, the V-Dem Institute of Gothenburg University categorized India as an "electoral autocracy" along with countries like Iran, Turkey, Hungary, and Russia.

In addition, Delhi's critical attitude towards Western sanctions is influenced by the fact that in the past, because of nuclear tests, the international community has imposed sanctions on India itself, and Prime Minister Modi was banned from entering the EU, the US, and Britain after the Gujarat pogrom that killed 2,000 people. Indian elites sympathize with Russia, considering it a "victim of NATO expansion," and the Indian military has even held rallies in support of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and calling for India to "return" its own "historical territories.

Paradoxically, neither India's much more democratic political system nor its rivalry with China can overcome the distance that separates India from the West and the nationalist moods within the country. At the same time, the arsenal of Western pressure on India looks very limited.