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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown Indian foreign policy into a tizzy. Forced to choose between two friends, the United States and Russia, New Delhi has leaned towards Putin. It has, till now, assiduously abstained from any United Nations vote that criticises the invasion.

To a large extent, the Modi government’s foreign policy stance is driven by pragmatic factors concerning India’s self-interest. It is estimated that as much as 80% of the country’s military equipment is from Russia, a legacy of the Cold War. Given India’s precarious security situation (the country is in an armed stand-off at its borders with not one, but two nuclear powers), it is absolutely critical its weapons supply chains remain operational.

However, even as Modi has managed to prevent any immediate harm to India’s arms supply, the global dislocation caused by Putin’s invasion has the potential to hurt him domestically.

The most immediate outcome of the Modi government’s Russia tilt has, naturally, been US anger. The American government and even many academics are outraged by India’s refusal to explicitly condemn Russian aggression.

On Thursday, US news website Axios reported that Washington had sent (and then recalled) a cable to US diplomats instructing them to inform New Delhi that its position on the war had put it in “Russia’s camp”. Another American website, Thehill.com reported even something more alarming: the US was considering sanctioning India.

Derek Grossman, from the Rand Corporation think tank, warned: “India’s close ties to Russia also are likely to become a liability with the United States, which has become the main counterweight for New Delhi as it competes against China.”

A column in American business newspaper, the “Wall Street Journal”.

Besides, while India might have secured its military supply chain in the short term, on the whole the Russia-Ukraine war is bad news for national security. The principal beneficiary of the conflict will almost certainly be India’s enemy across the Himalayas, given that unprecedented economic sanctions against Moscow would mean Russia attaching itself to China as a junior partner.

On Sunday itself, several Russian banks announced that they would switch over to a Chinese electronic funds transfer system after American firms, Visa and Mastercard said they were ceasing operations in Russia to protest the war. As financial columnist Andy Mukherjee explained, cutting Russia off from SWIFT, a global messaging system that enables bank transfers, is a golden opportunity for Chinese digital currency.

A member of an international relations think tank in China.

To add to this is the fact that Islamabad itself is getting closer to Russia. Like India, Pakistan has desisted from condemning Russia. In fact, in an odd turn of events, the Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan had a meeting with Putin in Moscow the day Russian armed forces stormed into Ukraine. Pakistan also became the first nation to sign a deal with Russia after the war began.

These global permutations hemming in India are bad news for the Bharatiya Janata Party, given that the party has, for the past seven years, used foreign policy to pump up Modi’s image domestically. Under Modi, foreign policy has been transformed into a mass, popular and, most importantly, electoral tool. Examples include a joint appearance with US President Donald Trump in a stadium full of supporters to using the 2019 airstrikes in Pakistan as a key campaign plank for the Lok Sabha elections.

Given that the space for India to manoeuvre is tight at the moment, it is unlikely that Modi will be able to repeat the grand foreign policy moves of the past. In fact, at the moment in Uttar Pradesh, the prime minister is pushing the fact that the evacuation of students from Ukraine was due to India’s enhanced stature across the world under his leadership. It is a rather strained point compared to, say, the passions that the 2019 confrontation with Pakistan engendered.

In fact, last week, the BJP even propagated the fallacious impression that Modi single-handedly convinced Russia to stop its campaign for six hours in order to allow Indians to be evacuated from embattled cities in Ukraine – an idea denied publicly by even the Ministry of External Affairs.

United States President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 'Namaste Trump' event at Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium, in Ahmedabad, on February 24, 2020. Credit: Alexander Drago/Reuters

The constant criticism of the BJP-led government from foreign commentators will also hurt Modi – who has taken care to project the image of himself as a statesman admired by the world. As one opinion piece puts it in Firstpost, “India’s abstention has been interpreted as a provincial response from an incapable, third-world country.” It is a troubling trend, given the claims by the BJP that Modi has transformed India into a “vishwaguru” or a country the entire world looks up to for guidance.

To add to this is the economic dislocation that the war will cause for global supply chains in crude oil, cooking oil and fertilisers.

JP Morgan predicts that crude oil could hit $185 per barrel by the end of the year, a neat doubling since the start of the war. This increase is driven by fears that Western sanctions could hit supplies from Russia, the world’s second-largest producer of oil. This is bad news for India, which imports about 85% of its oil supply. It is doubly bad news for Modi, who has long been attacked for failing ton control high petrol and diesel prices. Increased oil prices will further push up inflation, which has already been rather high for the past couple of years.

Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi mocking the Modi government for an expected increase in fuel prices once the UP elections get over.

Two specific commodities that will be directly affected by the war are cooking oil and fertilisers. Ukraine and Russia are the two largest producers of sunflower – a major source of cooking oil. Likewise, India imports large amounts of critical fertilisers from the region. The fertiliser shortage, in fact, is already an issue in the Uttar Pradesh elections. If this is not fixed soon, it will add to the burgeoning farmer anger against the BJP.

Media win

While Ukraine might be struggling in the shooting war, it is beating Russia handsomely in the media war.

All of which goes to show that this might be the first global social media war.

Death and stocks

An investment research firm has a gem of a report out on what to do in the case of...nuclear apocalypse.

Hindi-Chini bye bye