India and the United States will remain partners, despite Russia

Having worked from New York with Indian companies and authorities for the best part of the last twenty years, I have looked very closely at the developments of the Indo-US relationships in the context of the Ukrainian war.

A bit of history: the US as the newcomer

It looks like ages away, but the history of India since its independence and the split from Pakistan in 1947 has been a troubled one. From 1954, India cultivated strategic and military relations with the Soviet Union to counter Pakistan–United States relations. The United States supported Pakistan in the Indo-Pakistan war in 1971.

Communism is not dead in India. The movement in India was, from the very beginning, torn between sectarianism and reformism, and is still present in Kerala and West Bengal. The Communist Party of India transformed itself into a Maoist insurgency. In fact, with anywhere between 8,000 and 10,000 regular troops in its guerrilla army and nearly 40,000 cadres in the people’s militia, the Indian Maoists are the largest organized Communist fighters.

It was not until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, that India, a member of the non-aligned movement under the Cold War, chose to develop ties with the United States. The generational gap in the support of the United States is important to take into consideration. The elder ones have an emotional attachment to Russia that was the support of their country. Time will smooth that gap.

When he met Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar on April 12, 2022, Secretary Antony Blinken expressed it in a diplomatic way: India’s relationship with Russia was developed over decades at a time when the US was not able to be a partner of the country.

The Ukrainian dilemma

The abstention of India on the Russia resolution at the United Nations Security Council was probably the only valid option. It was meaningful in several ways.

For India not supporting Russia when Russia had supported India in its Kashmir invasion and other instances was an impossible choice. The main reason is that, at the outset, the United States stepped into the Ukrainian conflict alone making the Ukrainian war a US-Russia conflict.

It did not need to be. One could have imagined a resolution focused on peace that India, a non-violent country since Mahatma Gandhi, could have approved. It immediately became a confrontation between the United States and Russia, posing a dilemma for India.

However, as understandable as the Indian decision could be, there is a red line. India should not undermine Western sanctions.

The energy equation

India at the last minute threatened to make the COP 26 resolution fail because it was talking about phasing out coal: it ended up being a phasing down of coal dependency. “How can anyone expect that developing countries make promises about phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies? Developing countries still must deal with their poverty reduction agenda.” India’s Environment Minister, Bhupinder Yadav, said.[1]

The Ukrainian war has evidenced the difficulties Europe is having to confront Russia because of its dependency on Russian gas, oil and coal as well as agricultural products. India is also dependent on imports for its own needs. The discussion around the purchase of Russian oil by India has provoked strong reactions. President Biden on April 11 urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India not to increase his country’s reliance on Russian oil and gas, officials said, part of a global effort by the United States to maintain economic pressure on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.[2]

when asked on Tuesday about India’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war and its foreign policy goals[3], external Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said that India imports less oil from Russia than Europe does in an afternoon. While both parties understand each other this is unlikely to derail the partnership between the two countries.

Human rights issues

Here again, the United Sates Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, indicated that the US was monitoring the situation in the country.

“We regularly engage with our Indian partners on these shared values (of human rights) and to that end, we are monitoring some recent concerning developments in India including a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police and prison officials”.[4]

Based on the limited impact that element of US foreign policy had on China, a much worse human rights violator, it is unlikely to have a serious impact on the Indian relationships. That does not mean that nationalist Hinduism can expect to continue some outrageous treatment of its Muslim community (a place where PM Modi is particularly vulnerable) to remain unnoticed and without consequences.

Geopolitical considerations

Geopolitics have changed profoundly in the past weeks.

Russia tried to draw India in its camp, without much success. It was better received by China, with whom India has border conflicts and other contentious matters. From a US perspective, alliances in Asia are dominated by the links with Japan, itself threatened by China.

It is interesting to note that the last Quad meeting of February 2022 reaffirmed the commitment to supporting Indo-Pacific countries’ efforts to advance a free and open region, which is inclusive and resilient, and in which states strive to protect the interests of their people, free from coercion.[5] The US, Japan, Australia and India who form the Quad have a common enemy: the People’s Republic of China.

Democracy commitment

As the largest democracy in the world, India cannot be ignored.

What we are seeing is threats against democracy coming from the increased number of autocratic countries.

India and the United States share that commitment. It feels increasingly vulnerable to terrorism and conflicts. It is the reason why the defense of Ukraine is critical: it is a democratic country threatened by a rough invader led by an autocrat.

Trade speaks volumes

India just reached the record level of $ 400 billion in exports in 2021, despite the pandemic. The allocation between countries leaves very little to imagination: India’s largest export destination in the United States and if one adds other Western countries and Japan, India is, for all practical purposes, dependent on developed economies. Russia is not on the map.

For exports, this squarely puts corporate India closer to the United States: 9% of Indian exports to the US exceed 2.3% of US Exports to India… and growing.

The human factor

Probably the most remarkable factor in US India relationships is the extraordinary reservoir of talents that India continues to develop and grow, particularly in the engineering and IT field.

Indian Americans are the second-largest immigrant group in the United States. According to data from the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS) — which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau — there are 4.2 million people of Indian origin residing in the United States. That immigration has reached, through its competence and hard work, levels of leadership that apply to the public and private sector. Indian companies are employers of more than a million of US persons. Cultural differences remain substantial, however.

It takes twelve years to become Indian. The constitution of India does not allow holding Indian citizenship and citizenship of a foreign country simultaneously. The Government of India has decided to register Persons of Indian Origin of certain category as has been specified in the Section 7A of the Citizenship Act, 1955 as Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) Cardholder. It is basically a lifelong Visa and with some other privileges. [6]

The way forward: the situation must evolve

This (partial) picture is a clear indication that both parties are bound by common economic, human and geopolitical considerations making India in the words of the US Secretary of State “a partner of choice”. The migration of Indian interests from Russia towards the United States does not mean, however, that historical links can be ignored.

The links between the two countries are bound to continue to strengthen. For this evolution to be peaceful and mutually beneficial, there remain fields that need to, and I believe will, evolve.

· Geopolitical considerations must be dominated by a commitment to peace and a rejection of military solutions.

· Democracy on both sides needs to be strengthened, since each of them has shown, temptations of autocracy especially during the Modi-Trump bromance.

· Climate change is a common thread, but the US must recognize that the evolution of India will be costlier and slower.

· Human rights must be looked at seriously: India cannot ignore the fact that 200 million of its populations are Muslims. Religion should be a source of elevation, not conflicts. The US is right to monitor that situation.

· India might want to consider the issue of emigration differently: the current situation forces Indians to make a choice: renounce their Indian nationality to be able to gain the nationality of the land they live in.

· Trade and business links are so important and tight that there must be a political evolution that better reflects the symbiosis that exists between the citizens and the people of both countries.

For all those reasons, the disagreement on Russia, albeit clouding the relationship, should not hurt what has been thirty years of increased cooperation and partnerships.

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-59286790

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/11/us/politics/biden-modi-india-russia-oil.html

[3] https://indianexpress.com/article/india/us-india-22-dialogue-russia-ukraine-war-blinken-jaishankar-7865412/

[4] https://www.reuters.com/world/india/us-monitoring-rise-rights-abuses-india-blinken-says-2022-04-11/

[5] https://www.state.gov/joint-statement-on-quad-cooperation-in-the-indo-pacific/

[6] https://www.indianembassyusa.gov.in/Publicind?id=9#:~:text=Constitution%20of%20India%20does%20not,of%20a%20foreign%20country%20simultaneously.

Having worked from New York with Indian companies and authorities for the best part of the last twenty years, I have looked very closely at the developments of the Indo-US relationships in the context of the Ukrainian war.

A bit of history: the US as the newcomer

It looks like ages away, but the history of India since its independence and the split from Pakistan in 1947 has been a troubled one. From 1954, India cultivated strategic and military relations with the Soviet Union to counter Pakistan–United States relations. The United States supported Pakistan in the Indo-Pakistan war in 1971.

Communism is not dead in India. The movement in India was, from the very beginning, torn between sectarianism and reformism, and is still present in Kerala and West Bengal. The Communist Party of India transformed itself into a Maoist insurgency. In fact, with anywhere between 8,000 and 10,000 regular troops in its guerrilla army and nearly 40,000 cadres in the people’s militia, the Indian Maoists are the largest organized Communist fighters.

It was not until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, that India, a member of the non-aligned movement under the Cold War, chose to develop ties with the United States. The generational gap in the support of the United States is important to take into consideration. The elder ones have an emotional attachment to Russia that was the support of their country. Time will smooth that gap.

When he met Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar on April 12, 2022, Secretary Antony Blinken expressed it in a diplomatic way: India’s relationship with Russia was developed over decades at a time when the US was not able to be a partner of the country.

The Ukrainian dilemma

The abstention of India on the Russia resolution at the United Nations Security Council was probably the only valid option. It was meaningful in several ways.

For India not supporting Russia when Russia had supported India in its Kashmir invasion and other instances was an impossible choice. The main reason is that, at the outset, the United States stepped into the Ukrainian conflict alone making the Ukrainian war a US-Russia conflict.

It did not need to be. One could have imagined a resolution focused on peace that India, a non-violent country since Mahatma Gandhi, could have approved. It immediately became a confrontation between the United States and Russia, posing a dilemma for India.

However, as understandable as the Indian decision could be, there is a red line. India should not undermine Western sanctions.

The energy equation

India at the last minute threatened to make the COP 26 resolution fail because it was talking about phasing out coal: it ended up being a phasing down of coal dependency. “How can anyone expect that developing countries make promises about phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies? Developing countries still must deal with their poverty reduction agenda.” India’s Environment Minister, Bhupinder Yadav, said.[1]

The Ukrainian war has evidenced the difficulties Europe is having to confront Russia because of its dependency on Russian gas, oil and coal as well as agricultural products. India is also dependent on imports for its own needs. The discussion around the purchase of Russian oil by India has provoked strong reactions. President Biden on April 11 urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India not to increase his country’s reliance on Russian oil and gas, officials said, part of a global effort by the United States to maintain economic pressure on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.[2]

when asked on Tuesday about India’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war and its foreign policy goals[3], external Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said that India imports less oil from Russia than Europe does in an afternoon. While both parties understand each other this is unlikely to derail the partnership between the two countries.

Human rights issues

Here again, the United Sates Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, indicated that the US was monitoring the situation in the country.

“We regularly engage with our Indian partners on these shared values (of human rights) and to that end, we are monitoring some recent concerning developments in India including a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police and prison officials”.[4]

Based on the limited impact that element of US foreign policy had on China, a much worse human rights violator, it is unlikely to have a serious impact on the Indian relationships. That does not mean that nationalist Hinduism can expect to continue some outrageous treatment of its Muslim community (a place where PM Modi is particularly vulnerable) to remain unnoticed and without consequences.

Geopolitical considerations

Geopolitics have changed profoundly in the past weeks.

Russia tried to draw India in its camp, without much success. It was better received by China, with whom India has border conflicts and other contentious matters. From a US perspective, alliances in Asia are dominated by the links with Japan, itself threatened by China.

It is interesting to note that the last Quad meeting of February 2022 reaffirmed the commitment to supporting Indo-Pacific countries’ efforts to advance a free and open region, which is inclusive and resilient, and in which states strive to protect the interests of their people, free from coercion.[5] The US, Japan, Australia and India who form the Quad have a common enemy: the People’s Republic of China.

Democracy commitment

As the largest democracy in the world, India cannot be ignored.

What we are seeing is threats against democracy coming from the increased number of autocratic countries.

India and the United States share that commitment. It feels increasingly vulnerable to terrorism and conflicts. It is the reason why the defense of Ukraine is critical: it is a democratic country threatened by a rough invader led by an autocrat.

Trade speaks volumes

India just reached the record level of $ 400 billion in exports in 2021, despite the pandemic. The allocation between countries leaves very little to imagination: India’s largest export destination in the United States and if one adds other Western countries and Japan, India is, for all practical purposes, dependent on developed economies. Russia is not on the map.

For exports, this squarely puts corporate India closer to the United States: 9% of Indian exports to the US exceed 2.3% of US Exports to India… and growing.

The human factor

Probably the most remarkable factor in US India relationships is the extraordinary reservoir of talents that India continues to develop and grow, particularly in the engineering and IT field.

Indian Americans are the second-largest immigrant group in the United States. According to data from the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS) — which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau — there are 4.2 million people of Indian origin residing in the United States. That immigration has reached, through its competence and hard work, levels of leadership that apply to the public and private sector. Indian companies are employers of more than a million of US persons. Cultural differences remain substantial, however.

It takes twelve years to become Indian. The constitution of India does not allow holding Indian citizenship and citizenship of a foreign country simultaneously. The Government of India has decided to register Persons of Indian Origin of certain category as has been specified in the Section 7A of the Citizenship Act, 1955 as Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) Cardholder. It is basically a lifelong Visa and with some other privileges. [6]

The way forward: the situation must evolve

This (partial) picture is a clear indication that both parties are bound by common economic, human and geopolitical considerations making India in the words of the US Secretary of State “a partner of choice”. The migration of Indian interests from Russia towards the United States does not mean, however, that historical links can be ignored.

The links between the two countries are bound to continue to strengthen. For this evolution to be peaceful and mutually beneficial, there remain fields that need to, and I believe will, evolve.

· Geopolitical considerations must be dominated by a commitment to peace and a rejection of military solutions.

· Democracy on both sides needs to be strengthened, since each of them has shown, temptations of autocracy especially during the Modi-Trump bromance.

· Climate change is a common thread, but the US must recognize that the evolution of India will be costlier and slower.

· Human rights must be looked at seriously: India cannot ignore the fact that 200 million of its populations are Muslims. Religion should be a source of elevation, not conflicts. The US is right to monitor that situation.

· India might want to consider the issue of emigration differently: the current situation forces Indians to make a choice: renounce their Indian nationality to be able to gain the nationality of the land they live in.

· Trade and business links are so important and tight that there must be a political evolution that better reflects the symbiosis that exists between the citizens and the people of both countries.

For all those reasons, the disagreement on Russia, albeit clouding the relationship, should not hurt what has been thirty years of increased cooperation and partnerships.

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-59286790

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/11/us/politics/biden-modi-india-russia-oil.html

[3] https://indianexpress.com/article/india/us-india-22-dialogue-russia-ukraine-war-blinken-jaishankar-7865412/

[4] https://www.reuters.com/world/india/us-monitoring-rise-rights-abuses-india-blinken-says-2022-04-11/

[5] https://www.state.gov/joint-statement-on-quad-cooperation-in-the-indo-pacific/

[6] https://www.indianembassyusa.gov.in/Publicind?id=9#:~:text=Constitution%20of%20India%20does%20not,of%20a%20foreign%20country%20simultaneously.

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Georges Ugeux

CEO at Galileo Global Advisors and Adjunct professor Columbia Law School.