It was a hectic week for external affairs minister S Jaishankar at the United Nations (UN) — meeting leaders from every continent, representing extremely diverse viewpoints about the current moment in international politics and with varying intensity of relations with New Delhi. It will culminate with his speech at the UN General Assembly, which will likely present a picture of a confident India engaging with the world on its terms, while retaining its role as a credible democratic power.
This is a grim moment. The Ukraine war is at an inflection point. As soon as the military balance of power on the ground shifted in Kyiv’s favour and diplomatic pressure increased, Russian president Vladimir Putin chose confrontation over retreat. Moscow is holding what will be managed referen-dums with no international credibility to formalise its control over parts of Ukraine and integrate it into Russian territory. This adds to the stakes. In a rare move, it has announced additional mobilisation. And in an act of irresponsibility, Mr Putin has issued a not-so-subtle nuclear threat. Was his comment, “we are not bluffing”, meant to add to the credibility of the threat? The Americans haven’t noticed any additional operational moves, and past threats haven’t deterred western support for Ukraine. Or is it a real signal? While this question will be debated in strategic literature for years, it is clear that the war will continue and make the world more unstable.
This is where India comes in. New Delhi has talked to all sides involved and so is well informed. It has a strong message. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remark to Mr Putin on wars, made on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, has reverberated in global capitals, in what has turned out to be a moment of sharp timing. India almost anticipated Russia’s reckless turn and introduced the right amount of distance from Moscow in the public eye. The West picked up PM Modi’s message, for it added to their narrative of Russia’s isolation. This strengthens India’s diplomatic hand, even as it continues to engage with Russia on core interests on beneficial terms. Delhi’s consistent public messaging on the consequences of the war has also helped. This allows India to retain its space as a voice, if not the leader, of the Global South. To balance all these relationships is critical in India’s real strategic challenge — the battle with China across domains.
If the messaging and moment helps India carve its own space, so does the fact that Mr Jaishankar has a larger story to tell. India continues to be seen in the democratic camp, its electoral story is viewed as legitimate, and concerns or debates on democratic deficit (or backsliding) are a non-issue in the world of hard diplomacy focused on the strategic theatre. Instead, India’s narrative of a democracy that is capable has a fair degree of traction. India’s welfare system, vaccination campaign, and the progress on sustainable development goals all add to it. As does the economy. The fact that projected growth has dipped and India faces real vulnerabilities is masked by the gloom in the rest of the global economy. In addition, on the margins, a subplot is playing out on Security Council reform. It won’t happen anytime soon, but there is a degree of energy on the issue propelled by a set of American statements and India is a key part of discussions on it. As Delhi gets ready to leave the council at the end of the year, Mr Jaishankar’s speech will mark a key moment for India. Be sure that it will be heard in power corridors across the world.