News | South Asia Speaking the Language of Tyrants

While the Indian Left fights for multipolarity, Modi builds ties with both Putin and Biden



Britta Petersen,

Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin view a model of a nuclear-powered icebreaker during a visit to the Zvezda shipyard 30 kilometres from Moscow.
Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin view a model of a nuclear-powered icebreaker during a visit to the Zvezda shipyard 30 kilometres from Moscow. Photo: picture alliance/EPA-EFE | MICHAEL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/KREML

Renowned Indian feminist Kavita Krishnan has fallen out with the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) Liberation, or CPI(ML), a party she joined as a student and as one of its Central Committee members served for over two decades.

Britta Petersen directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s South Asia Regional Office in Delhi.

As its complicated name might suggest, the party has a long and turbulent history of infighting and schism and is represented today in only two of India’s regional parliaments. In the Lok Sabha, the Parliament in New Delhi, the CPI(ML) has long held no seat. This is, however, not the reason why Krishnan resigned from all of her party offices last year.

Krishnan’s motivation was instead based on the bigger picture: on geopolitics, China, Russia, and the position of the Indian Left in the new world (dis)order. This dispute is also a lesson for the global Left, and it is still by no means clear who or what “monsters”, to quote Antonio Gramsci, will be spawned by the fall of the US-dominated world order and the rise of China on the world stage.

Krishnan accuses her comrades of supporting authoritarian regimes by uncritically advocating multipolarity. In a defining article from December 2022, she stated that “All streams of the Left in India and globally have for long advocated for a multipolar world as opposed to a unipolar one dominated by the imperialist USA.” Yet at the same time, multipolarity is “rallying cry for despots, that serves to dress up their war on democracy as a war on imperialism”.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s justification of the war served as the catalyst for her outrage, with Krishnan stating that “by asserting the self-evident fact that the Western governments did not have ‘any moral right to weigh in, or even utter a word about democracy’”, Putin had signalled to “far-right, white-supremacist, racist, anti-feminist, homophobic and transphobic political movements” that the invasion of Ukraine was part of a larger project that would prove beneficial to them: overthrowing the “unipolar hegemony” of the universal values of democracy and human rights.

As one might expect, those on the Left who have traditionally been pro-Moscow see this somewhat differently. S. Ramachandran Pillai, also known as “Comrade SRP”, a veteran of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), suggests that “Kavita Krishnan seems to be confused about Marxism”, adding that criticism of Russia and China must be viewed within the “wider context of the designs of the US and its allies”. But Krishnan is unfazed by this: “What has the US got to do with China’s atrocities against Uyghur Muslims?” she asks. “I am a committed communist for the last three decades … Liberty is non-negotiable.”

Modi and his eloquent minister for foreign affairs S. Jaishankar, a career diplomat, have so far managed to successfully avoid the conflict, while at the same time benefitting from cheap Russian oil.

These opinions put her in an unusual position. The US and UK had both expressed hope that, as a democracy, India would join them and the Western bloc in condemning Putin’s war in Ukraine and placing sanctions on Russia. But India’s response was quite the opposite. On a recent visit to Moscow, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stated that “now is not the time for war”. His criticism of Putin ends there.

Modi and his eloquent minister for foreign affairs S. Jaishankar, a career diplomat, have so far managed to successfully avoid the conflict, while at the same time benefitting from cheap Russian oil. According to the state-owned Bank of Baroda, India imported around 20 percent of its crude oil from Russia in 2022, compared to the mere two percent it imported in 2021, prior to the onset of Russia’s war in Ukraine. While not thrilled with this situation, Washington and Brussels remain silent on the topic because they see India as a key Asian ally to counter China’s dominance.

India’s relationship to Russia is quite complex. The former ruling party, the social democratic Indian National Congress (INC), maintained a good relationship with the Soviet Union. For many years, India sourced military technology almost exclusively from Russia, and even today 80 percent of India’s military equipment is imported from there. A relationship of mutual trust endures between New Delhi and Moscow, despite the fact that neither Putin nor Modi can be accused of being socialists.

Concerns over China’s Growing Power

Yet, New Delhi’s strategic calculations are weighted more heavily by concerns about China’s ever-growing power. For India, China is not a “systemic rival”, but rather a superior neighbour against whom India lost a war in 1962, and with whom it regularly engages in military skirmishes over its disputed northern border. China also maintains an excellent relationship with India’s long-standing rival Pakistan.

According to Mohamed Zeeshan, author of the book Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership, “A weak Putin is India’s worst nightmare.” At present, New Delhi fears that the West’s boycott of Russia will escalate Putin’s relationship with Beijing and thus establish a new bipolarity with the US on one side and China on the other. This would undermine India’s hopes for a multipolar world order in which middleweight powers like itself could also play a leading role.

India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru of the Congress Party, had previously expressed this world view — although the philosophy of “non-alignment” (not belonging to one of the two military alliances during the Cold War) that he coined has since been replaced by the concept of “strategic autonomy”. Nehru sought to position India as the Global South’s foremost power and, by co-organizing the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955, laid the foundations for the Non-Aligned Movement and the further decolonization of Africa and Asia.

In light of the large number of new formats and initiatives, the Indian Left must now face the question of whether the current fixation on opposing US imperialism is perhaps also outdated.

In a 1948 speech, Nehru commented: “What does joining a bloc mean? After all it can only mean one thing: give up your view about a particular question, adopt the other party’s view on that question in order to please it.” He added to this in 1949, asserting: “We have stated repeatedly that our foreign policy is one of keeping aloof from the big blocs … being friendly to all countries ... not becoming entangled in any alliances … that may drag us into any possible conflict. That does not, on the other hand, involve any lack of close relationships with other countries.”

That, however, was before China emerged as an economic and political superpower that is today defying the old world order. Since then, India has cautiously moved closer to the US, procured armaments from France and Israel, held military manoeuvres with Japan, and attempted a wide-reaching and strategic balancing act. India considers “strategic autonomy” to be the ability of a state to make decisions independently of external influence. Indian journalist Sreemoy Talukdar defines it as “exercise of choice driven purely by sovereign considerations and interest”.

New Alliances

Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar suggested India “must do away with the sense that we can just stand on the sidelines”. Adding that India should “be more actively involved in shaping the world, be more confident when it comes to engaging other global actors, and better understand and identify what our own interests are and seek to advance them”. The multipolar engagement India currently is undertaking, however, amounts more to a juggling act with an uncertain outcome.

India participates in a wide variety of forums including the BRICS alliance, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). BRICS comprises a loose alliance of the countries from which it gets its name — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, which are all seeking to acquire more influence on the international stage. Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were also recently admitted to BRICS, while Argentina recently exited the alliance.

QUAD is the military-political alliance comprising the US, Australia, India, and Japan. India’s involvement in QUAD also reflects its concern over China’s military presence in the Indo-Pacific region. The Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times describes QUAD as an “small anti-China group”. India is also involved in the AIIB and holds the second-largest stake in the development bank after China, which holds 27 percent.

These new institutions are a reaction to the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), which were founded in the wake of World War II, and the United Nations Security Council, all of which continue to reflect the balance of power that existed during that period. Newly created bodies for cooperation have been formed in the wake of failed attempts at reform via the inclusion of a larger number of countries in global decision-making processes.

Samir Saran, president of the independent Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation, describes the UN Security Council as the “last colonial institution”. India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Ruchira Kamboj, believes that the current structure of the Security Council is an anachronism that has been unable to adapt to the seismic changes to international relations that have occurred in recent decades.

In light of the large number of new formats and initiatives, the Indian Left must now face the question of whether the current fixation on opposing US imperialism is perhaps also outdated, and whether this fixation is failing to define which interests are relevant from a left-wing perspective to the future world order. These interests must differ from those of the current Hindu nationalist government.

As Kavita Krishnan states: “Those in life-or-death struggles need us to respect their autonomy and sovereignty to decide what kind of moral/material/military support to demand/accept/reject. The moral compass of the global and Indian Left needs an urgent reset, so that it can correct its disastrous course that finds it on speaking the same language as tyrants.”

So far, she hasn’t received much in the way of thanks for her efforts.

This article first appeared in nd.aktuell in cooperation with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Translated by Eve Richens and Louise Pain for Gegensatz Translation Collective.