Watch | India Undermined Its Own Leadership of G20 To Placate the Russians: Shashi Tharoor

The Modi government's refusal to criticise Russia's invasion of Ukraine has damaged India's reputation for sticking to principles, the Congress MP tells Karan Thapar.

In the strongest criticism of India’s position on Ukraine made by any opposition politician, Shashi Tharoor says there’s a damaging contradiction in India’s position on Ukraine as a result of which the G20 finance ministers’ meeting in Bengaluru last weekend was “an absolute setback for Indian diplomacy”. The contradiction Tharoor – a former minister of state for external affairs – was alluding to is the fact that on the one hand, India repeatedly claims this is not an era of war yet is reluctant to call what’s happening in Ukraine a war and simply refuses to criticise Russia for starting it. At one point, Tharoor asked if India is unable to stand up for its own principles and beliefs, “Will India count at all?”

Speaking about the G20 meeting in Bangalore last weekend where the news agency PTI revealed that India was reluctant to use the word war in the communique but preferred either ‘crisis’ or ‘challenge’, Tharoor said this shows “India’s nerve failed”. He called it “an absolute setback for Indian diplomacy”.

Speaking about the response of the french finance minister Bruno Le Maire who, according to PTI, publicly said that France would not sign any communique that did not stick to the language used in Bali and who, according to the Indian Express, even threatened to walk out, Tharoor said this is a clear instance where India’s equivocation and contradictions are starting to grate on its closest friends in the West. Tharoor summed up: “In effect, India undermined its own leadership of the G20 to placate the Russians … this is getting absurd. This is really something India ought to be embarrassed about … this is an example where India’s nerve failed.”

In a 28-minute interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire, Shashi Tharoor, who has also served as chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee for External Affairs and is a three-time Congress MP, was sharply critical of India’s refusal to vote against Russia in the UN General Assembly resolution passed on Thursday. This resolution called for “a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine in line with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations”. That’s something India clearly and unequivocally is committed to. Equally importantly, the resolution did not criticise Russia or call for sanctions. Yet India abstained. Tharoor said this shows “India either is excessively cynical and we are doing this to preserve our own oil supplies from Russia or has essentially abandoned its principles.”

The former under-secretary general at the United Nations said: “We used to have a reputation for punching above our weight … people listened to us, we were involved in a whole lot of issues … because we had that kind of moral stature … the reputation for sticking to principles … today India is sadly a very very far cry from that … we are actually punching far below our weight.”

Tharoor said: “Today we have not antagonised fully the West but we have been surprisingly submissive to the Russians and we have, of course, been humiliatingly quiet and meek to the Chinese.”

Finally, the Congress MP said if we can’t come out with an agreed communique when the Foreign Ministers’ meet on March 1, “the world will see that as a failure” on India’s behalf.

Speaking about the position India took on the Ukraine crisis in the early days, Tharoor described it as “little short of shameful”. He added, “We seem to have betrayed everything we stood for.” He said the situation “required India to make hard choices and that showed up our vulnerabilities.”

Since then, Tharoor said, India has recovered some of the lost ground when Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Samarkand in September 2022 said that “this is not an era of war”. However, that statement itself has revealed fresh inconsistencies and contradictions when you realise that India is reluctant to use the word war to describe the Ukraine situation and repeatedly refuses to criticise Russia for starting it.

He said the stand India has taken – refusing to call a war a war and refusing to criticise Russia’s invasion – could set a precedent which could be used against India in the event of any future conflict with China. In that sense, India would be hoist by its own petard.