Trump becoming the President of the divided states of America and reports about collaboration between Trump's team and Russian administration prior to the elections do not bode well for democracies elsewhere in the world. Without a doubt, we are seeing a wane in power of democracies and cracks beginning to emerge in institutions such as the European Union. So should India worry too? What should be the future outlook for India's relationship with Russia and the West?
India enjoyed an excellent relationship with the Soviet Union in the days of Cold War. It was said that the fall of the latter came as a big shock to Indian leaders as it brought down one of its most trusted partners. President Putin, after coming to power, boosted Russia-India relationship. It must be noted, however, that the relationship between India and Russia has never come anywhere close to that of India and USSR. One of the major reasons for this are the conditions: Those were the days of cold war and Pakistan's aligning with the US, China that had forced India to look the other way. It did not help the matters that then Richard Nixon President wasn't particularly fond of Indira Gandhi. It is unlikely that such conditions will rise again, giving India's increasingly close relationship with the US and formation of Russia-China nexus to counter the West.
The other big reason is the difference in governance. India is a democracy, and despite its faults, functions rather well for a nation this large and diverse. Russia is a federation and semi-presidential republic. There are hardly any shared values between the two in reality. One might go on a rant about how these things don't matter on a global stage and how common interests prevail, but if we look at how people common are increasingly influencing foreign policies (Trump, Brexit), the argument falls flat on its face. But why is this question arising now? Does India really need to be concerned about this? Yes, it does.
India's increasing global aspirations and Russia looking to gain its lost influence are not going to go hand-in-hand all the way. Let's take the recent US elections example. There has been an argument that Moscow influenced US elections. While we don't yet know how much they were involved in the process or what was their ultimate aim in getting Trump elected, we can definitely see Russia trying to undermine democracy in the West. Unfortunately, now more than ever, we can see questions raised as to whether democracy is really the best way for governance. China is not a democracy, and yet it has succeeded like no other democratic nation has. But more authoritative steps in democracies have not succeeded either. Look how Indira Gandhi imposing emergency on India went against her. For a more recent example, look how Modi's demonetisation has polarised India. So in this age when democracies are finding it difficult to bridge gaps and communist nations like Russia succeeding in disrupting the democracies, what can we expect for India?
Now here is where all the assumptions and guesswork begins. Russia and India are unlikely to see themselves at crossroads for another two or three decades. Russia's war against US hegemony is to see US fall as a nation. It is not limited to destabilising it. Rather, it would not be wrong to say that Russia wants to see the West fall. You can see how European Union's falling unity must have come across as a good news for Russia. Now Indian democracy is different. And there are two scenarios: One, if Western power falls considerably, India will find its own interests blocked by Russia. India's growing influence in the Indian Ocean, using its voice at UN, may not please Russia. Russia, in this case, would want India to keep to itself and may want to always have some leverage on India. While India has never had power ambitions beyond its region, a future scenario where India might need to project its power beyond the immediate sub-continental region, for example in Afghanistan or in the South China Sea, It is not unlikely to see Russia opposing such a move.
The other scenario is if the West recovers from the power erosion and stands strong. Despite India's calls for strengthening Asia, this might be more helpful to India's aspirations. If Russia fails to increase its influence, it will try to keep its relationship with India on good terms. India's power would have grown significantly in that period and it will be useful when negotiating energy and defence deals with Russia and keep India from falling into Western influence. It will also keep India's non-alignment policy intact and play the role of a swing state that it has been very successful in preserving. Russia-India relationship has always been based on mutual interests. When there is a lack of any, there have been problems. For example, in the aftermath of Uri attacks, India looked to isolate Pakistan on the global front. It expected Russia to call off the military exercises scheduled with Pakistan. That did not happen. In the BRICS summit in Goa, India expected Russia to endorse its vision of opposing all forms of terrorism and cornering Pakistan. That did not happen. The point to note here is, Russia's anti-Pakistan policy was more to do with the fact that Pakistan belonged with the US than it being an archenemy of India. It had only supported India when it had something to gain or something to lose. Now, when it seeks to get re-involved in Afghanistan, where Pakistan has crucial influence, Russia doesn't see it necessary to follow India's lead.
The future of Indo-Russian relations will depend on Western influence on global political order as well as Russia's superpower ambitions. As in the past, India may find it best to be as faithful as possible to its non-aligned policy and make adjustments as necessary. But what we can be sure of is, decreasing power of democracies, even if we find them imperialist in some extents, may not be in India's interests in the long term. With the hope of becoming self-reliant in the future, India could find it easier to negotiate with the democracies if they stay stable and strong.
Title image: Ibtimes