Can Modi Overcome India’s Ukraine Stance?

Michael Kugelman | 09 May 2022
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The Indian prime minister’s trip to Europe this week shows there is still room for deepening ties with the West.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inks new deals in a trip to Europe, Sri Lanka’s embattled prime minister faces deepening challenges, and blasphemy charges inflame Pakistani politics.

In Europe, Modi Overcomes Ukraine Challenge

From the moment Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the war has presented a challenge for Indian foreign policy. Western governments have pressed New Delhi to take a stand against the invasion and to stop doing business with Russia. But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi used a visit to Europe this week to show that his government won’t let Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war undermine a key foreign-policy goal: deepening ties with the European Union.

During his trip, Modi visited three capitals that have made their positions on the conflict in Ukraine clear: Berlin, Copenhagen, and Paris. Germany has shifted its pacifist foreign policy and promised military assistance, Denmark has offered to supply troops for a potential peacekeeping mission, and France has called for extensive sanctions on Russia. In Copenhagen, Modi participated in an India-Nordic Summit with Finland and Sweden, which have both responded to the invasion by pursuing NATO membership.

Modi came armed with pushback points: If pressed to reduce arms imports from Russia, he could have pointed to the tenfold increase in Indian arms imports from France in recent years, for example. But he may not have needed such rebuttals. Despite Europe’s unhappiness with India’s stance, Modi still managed to leverage growing areas of partnership to advance New Delhi’s relations with the region during his visit. Most readouts from Modi’s trip highlight new agreements and pledge deeper cooperation in a range of areas.

Security cooperation has progressed since the EU released a new Indo-Pacific strategy last year that reflects a rules-based vision for the region favored by India and offers potential for deepening maritime and cybersecurity collaboration. Owing in great part to its territorial holdings in the region, France has long been an active Indo-Pacific player. A joint statement after Modi’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday pledged cooperation in diverse security spheres, from defense technology to space issues.

Despite European concerns about India’s investment and regulatory environment, trade also remains an area ripe for growth. The EU is India’s third-largest trade partner and the second-largest destination for Indian exports. Trade in goods between India and the EU grew by nearly 13 percent over the last decade; between 2020 and 2021 alone, it increased by $23 billion. Modi’s trip produced new commercial accords with Germany and Denmark, including on green shipping and skills development.

India and the EU have also made progress on climate cooperation. Last year, they agreed to implement a clean energy and climate partnership concluded in 2016. Just last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited India and called on the two sides to step it up. Denmark, France, and Germany are all top candidates to supply India with clean energy technology as New Delhi attempts to keep up with its pledge to scale up renewables and phase out carbon emissions; Modi inked new accords on clean energy with Germany and Denmark.

Finally, there is the Indian diaspora. Germany has the third-highest Indian population in Europe. In each country Modi visited, the diaspora community is highly skilled, making it a key source of remittances for India and a potential catalyst for bilateral commercial deals. Diaspora members can also serve as a bridge between Europe and India, promoting more cooperation—just as Indian Americans do for U.S.-India relations. Modi held events with enthusiastic diaspora members in Berlin and Copenhagen, allowing him to showcase the community there.

Post-meeting readouts and public comments from Modi’s hosts suggest that Ukraine was discussed extensively during his trip to Europe. But that didn’t stop him from making headway in key areas of cooperation. Modi’s visit to Europe shows that Russia’s war in Ukraine may hover over Indian foreign-policy objectives, but it won’t necessarily hinder them.

What We’re Following

A pivotal moment for Colombo. For months, Sri Lanka’s ruling Rajapaksas have defied demands from protesters, opposition leaders, and some members of their own party to step down. But in the coming days, one of them could find himself out of a job: Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. His brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is reportedly willing to form a national unity government led by a new prime minister.

But that may not be necessary to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sri Lanka’s opposition has threatened to bring a no-confidence vote against him. However, the opposition suffered a blow on Thursday when a ruling coalition-backed politician became deputy speaker of Parliament. At any rate, removing the prime minister won’t end Sri Lanka’s political crisis. The opposition and protesters have rejected any arrangement in which Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains in power. If he insists on holding on, he’ll find himself increasingly isolated.

For Sri Lanka, the stakes could not be any higher. Despite a new assistance package from the World Bank, a likely one from the International Monetary Fund, and additional aid from India, the country’s economic crisis is worsening. Inflation in Colombo reached nearly 30 percent late last week, and officials say foreign reserves have fallen to a record low. Sri Lanka needs $4 billion over the next eight months to cover the costs of importing essential goods; it also owes $7 billion in foreign loans this year.

A dangerous moment for Islamabad. Pakistan’s highly charged political environment is reaching dangerous levels of tension. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan lit the first spark by accusing the opposition of colluding with the U.S. government to oust him. He has maintained that narrative as the opposition formed a new government, repeatedly referring to the new political leadership as traitors.

Last week, supporters of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party heckled a senior government delegation led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif while they visited the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia—one of the world’s most sacred Muslim sites. Police in Pakistan have filed blasphemy charges against the hecklers and Khan himself. Last Sunday, Pakistani Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah expressed his support for the charges and even suggested Khan could be arrested if evidence ties him to the incident.

Blasphemy is an extremely dangerous charge in Pakistan, and convictions can result in death sentences; some people accused of blasphemy have been lynched by angry mobs. The move against the mosque hecklers has been widely condemned by human rights groups, with the government accused of politicizing the charges. Khan has called on his supporters to stage an anti-government march on Islamabad later this month. Given recent developments, it could prove to be tense—and violent.

India faulted for COVID-19 undercount. The World Health Organization (WHO) released new data on Thursday indicating that nearly 15 million people died worldwide from COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021—a significantly higher figure than the 5.4 million deaths that countries previously reported through their own official figures. The WHO report says that India significantly undercounted its death toll: Although New Delhi recorded 481,000 deaths, the WHO now says the more accurate figure is somewhere between 3.3 million and 6.5 million.

The Indian government, which has repeatedly taken issue with the WHO’s methodology, has unsurprisingly rejected the new findings. An Indian health ministry statement said that the “WHO has released the excess mortality estimates without adequately addressing India’s concerns.” Experts in India say that for reasons from politics to poor data collection, the country’s true COVID-19 death toll may never be known.

Under the Radar

In recent weeks, Bangladesh’s government has closed more than 30 community-run schools intended to serve Rohingya refugees and threatened to confiscate the refugees’ identity documents if they violate the ban. Bangladesh hosts around 1 million Rohingya refugees, most of whom arrived in 2017 after fleeing a targeted military campaign in Myanmar.

Bangladeshi officials say they closed the community-run schools because the Rohingya didn’t have permission to open them. But human rights activists argue that Dhaka fears that keeping the schools open will make Rohingya families unwilling to depart the country. Bangladeshi officials have held periodic negotiations with Myanmar about repatriating Rohingya refugees. Rohingya community leaders maintain the schools are actually intended to prepare young people for their eventual return to Myanmar.

Although Bangladesh’s government hasn’t denied that it wants to repatriate Rohingya refugees, it has often highlighted its fair and humane treatment of the community. With some exceptions—a decision to send some refugees to an isolated island, the bulldozing of thousands of Rohingya businesses declared illegal—the international community has praised Dhaka’s policies toward the refugees.

Closing the schools is risky: It could undermine these global perceptions. More importantly, it leaves young people at greater risk of falling prey to trafficking rings and other illegal activities.

Regional Voices

In the Island, Sri Lankan political commentator Dayan Jayatilleka criticizes the possibility of a new multiparty government under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “If anyone agrees to participate in any interim/all-parties government under him, they must know that Gotabaya can tear up the arrangement and throw out that government any day of the week,” he writes. “That alone should expose the idea as a farce.”

Lawyer Zorain Nizamani argues in the Express Tribune that Pakistanis shouldn’t get caught up in worsening political polarization, because their politicians aren’t worth supporting or fighting for. “These politicians couldn’t care less about your well-being, they look down [on] you as slaves, as articles they use when they want to come into power,” he writes.

Indian analyst Zainab Sikander writes in the Print that revenge has become an increasingly powerful part of the country’s politics. “Vendetta politics is now brazen. Things are going to get worse. But it is the people, especially the poor, who will suffer due to this political ‘nautanki’ [drama],” she writes.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington.  

This article was originally published on Foreign Policy.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy