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The Indian government’s decision to buy discounted crude oil from Russia, when the Vladimir Putin administration is bombing civilians in Ukraine, is questionable on many counts. Contrary to the Narendra Modi administration’s plea that the issue should not be politicised, in the existing situation the decision is as much political as it is economic, however much we may wish it were not.
The US, European countries, Japan and Australia have made no secret of their desire that India join them in condemning Putin’s war, as the 141 country governments that voted in favour of the UN General Assembly resolution did. Russia has offered discounted oil to show that India is among the ‘many’ countries – actually a dozen at best – that resist the Atlantic alliance’s attempt to isolate and punish Putin. Xi’s China has suddenly discovered that Modi’s India is worth talking to: it will provide cover for the Xi administration to not only deflect attention from its own support for Russia, but to position itself as more willing to engage with the Atlantic alliance than India. (I wonder, will external affairs minister S. Jaishankar ask his counterpart to ensure that the PLA withdraw from all the positions it has occupied in the de facto buffer zone between our two countries, on a fast-track time frame?)
In such a context, the decision to buy oil from Russia has clear political and economic ramifications that will affect India for at least a decade, if not more. So the first question is, why did the Modi administration arrive at such a decision without consulting opposition parties or parliament, or putting the issue in the public domain to elicit responses? Surely the joint parliamentary committee on external affairs should have been the first point of reference, followed by an all-party meeting?
Perhaps the Modi administration concluded that the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) briefing of the committee on March 3 yielded a sufficient endorsement of its policy; after all, the decision to buy crude oil is merely another step in that policy. From what little appeared in the news on that briefing, it appears that the focus was on evacuation of Indian students, though India’s silence on Russia’s invasion was also discussed. Apparently, the parliamentarians present all agreed that India was ‘between a rock and a hard place’, in Shashi Tharoor’s words, and the only option was to call for a cessation of hostilities and a return to ‘dialogue and diplomacy’. The Modi administration has, since then, stuck to that position, which could be seen as a shift from India’s previous silence.
If that is the case, then what is the Modi administration doing to support dialogue and diplomacy? Peace negotiations have been on under Turkish auspices for some time now. Is India supporting them in any substantive way? Has the prime minister spoken to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to offer any aid for the talks that might be useful? While Indian and Russian companies were negotiating the purchase of oil, did the prime minister convey to Putin that a ceasefire was imperative to give peace negotiations a better chance of success? Have we continued to push for humanitarian corridors as the bombing of civilian areas in Ukraine grows more acute? What is the quantum of humanitarian aid that we have sent to Ukraine and how much more does the Modi administration plan to send?
These are questions that the parliamentarians on the joint committee are well-placed to ask the Modi administration. I do not know if they have done so yet, but if not I do hope that they will. The announcement of oil purchases is surely the moment to do so. The buy is unlikely to have any impact on peace negotiations, nor is it likely to ease Putin’s economic predicament in any significant way given that several European countries are also buyers. But it does give the Putin administration’s claim that it is not isolated a talking point in perception wars, at a time when negotiations are delicately poised and the war on Ukraine continues.
Foreign policy has traditionally been insulated from political party rivalries for good reason. Yet the purpose of its insulation – to show consensus on issues of national interest – is defeated if consensus simply means endorsing the government position. During the years of the Jawaharlal Nehru administration, critical foreign policy choices were debated at length in parliament and the media, but over time the practice withered. For many decades now, foreign policy has been made chiefly in the prime minister’s office, with inputs from the Ministry of External Affairs.
At a time when so many in our country are soul-searching over the nature of our democracy, and our people have begun to globalise educationally as well as in other ways – travel, for example – the line between external and internal affairs is tenuous at best. The founders of our republic knew well that the strength of our democracy also drew from the strength of democracy globally. They opposed the Cold War because it put ideological battles into a military-strategic frame in which democratic principles and processes were jettisoned. In the case of Ukraine, there are both moral and strategic considerations involved that profoundly affect our perception of the national interest. The moral issue is black and white – a powerful country has invaded a less powerful one and is killing civilians – one of own students was killed, a boy who stayed behind to help others when he had an opportunity to leave.
Now, while the strategic issues are still being debated, our government has dismissed the moral issue by concluding a cheap oil agreement. There may be reasons for it, such as that our existing oil suppliers will be under pressure from exponentially increased European demand following sanctions, but we have not been told what the reasons are, or whether they are compelling. Were there other ways of ensuring supplies? Or is it a question of price? Will the discounted price at which the Modi administration buys lead to a reduction of prices to the consumer?
Most important of all, are Indian consumers willing to pay the moral price of accepting discounted oil from Russia? Do we have a choice? Will Indian Oil tell those of us who wish to boycott this buy which pumps we can go to if we do not wish to buy Russian oil?
Radha Kumar is a writer and policy analyst.