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The South Asian Insider

Jaishankar in Moscow: Is All Well on the Western Front?



Written By: Ashok Sajjanhar
The last few days have witnessed a flurry of commentaries in the print and electronic media suggesting that India’s relations with the West, particularly the US, have entered a rocky phase. And the reason for that is the allegation of India’s involvement in a plot to assassinate an American citizen, a Khalistani separatist declared a terrorist in India, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. It has been suggested that External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar’s visit to Moscow and St Petersburg from 25th to 29th December is somehow linked to this souring of relations between India and the US.
Nothing could be further from the truth!
India’s relations with the US continue to be strong and robust. This is best illustrated by the comment by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his interview to the Financial Times on 20 December wherein he said that relations with the US remain on an “upward trajectory”, and that the “relationship is broader in engagement, deeper in understanding, warmer in friendship than ever before”. He added that the relationship “should not be held hostage to one incident or two”.INDIA-US RELATIONS
Ties between India and the United States have been on an upward trajectory since the visit of President Bill Clinton to India in March 2000. There is bipartisan support for a stronger partnership between the two countries in the US as well as in India. Relations between the two countries have continued to grow irrespective of the political party that occupied the White House in the US or the Prime Minister’s Office in India. Possibly the biggest push to the bilateral partnership was provided by PM Modi’s State visit to Washington DC on 22 June 2023, when he also addressed the Joint Session of the US Congress for the second time, becoming the only Indian leader and one of the very few world leaders to address the US Congress on more than one occasion.
The sustained upward trajectory of the bilateral partnership does not mean that there were no differences of views, opinions, or interests between the two countries over the last 23 years since the upward flow of bilateral engagement commenced.Most recently, India and the West were on diametrically opposite sides regarding India’s position on the aggression by Russia against Ukraine. India did not criticise or condemn the Russian action although it firmly maintained that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, and principles and Charter of the United Nations should be fully respected. PM Modi told President Putin that “this is not an era of war” and that all differences should be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy.
India also came under considerable pressure from the West about its import of crude from Russia. India was able to clearly and firmly explain to its Western partners that it’s an energy-deficient country and imports 85% of its crude oil requirements, and that it has a historical relationship with Russia, particularly in the field of import of defence equipment to the tune of 50-60% of its defence needs.
Just before that, the sudden and chaotic withdrawal by US and NATO ISAF forces from Afghanistan and the capture of Kabul by the Taliban in August 2021 came as a huge shock to India.Moreover, the decision by the US in 2022 to provide a grant of $450 million to Pakistan for the upgrade of its F-16 fleet was strongly criticised and opposed by India. The US argument that Pakistan would use these fighters for counter-terrorism purposes did not cut any ice with the Indian interlocutors.
The above instances clearly demonstrate that there have been several instances of divergence between the two countries in the past. The two sides have sought to resolve them through discussions with maturity, understanding and mutual respect.
In the Pannun case, it would appear that the US administration knew of the alleged plot at least since July and the Indian government knew that the US knew something at least since August. The US did not go to town with the information. On the contrary, it had discussions with its Indian counterparts behind closed doors. It went public only in end-November 2023 when the indictment against the accused Nikhil Gupta was unsealed.The Indian government set up a committee to investigate the matter as soon as some concrete information was provided to it by the US side.
The two countries have behaved in a responsible and measured manner. The Pannun incident is being seen as a normal law and order issue which will take its own course but will not be allowed to have any adverse repercussions on the burgeoning bilateral ties.
In response to a question by the Financial Times on this allegation, PM Modi stated that US-India bilateral ties are far stronger, resilient and broad-based to be derailed by a “few incidents”. Affirming his commitment to the rule of law, PM Modi promised to investigate if any evidence is put forward. He added that India was “deeply concerned about the activities of certain extremist groups based overseas… These elements, under the guise of freedom of expression, have engaged in intimidation and incited violence”. This aspect also needs to be taken cognizance of by the Western countries and strict action taken against the anti-Indian elements.
RELATIONS WITH CANADA
The case of the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada is quite different from that of Pannun.
In a totally unexpected move, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau soon after returning from India after attending the G20 Summit, announced in the Canadian Parliament on 18 September that there were “credible allegations” that the Indian government was involved in the killing of a Canadian citizen, a Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, on 18 June 2023. Canada expelled a senior Indian official from the Indian High Commission in Ottawa without providing any evidence of his involvement. The Indian Foreign Office termed these charges as “absurd and motivated”.
India’s External Affairs Minister categorically stated that it is not India’s policy to engage in extra-territorial killings. He added that no specific or relevant information had been shared by Canada with India and if any such information was provided, India would be prepared to look at it. India maintains that the real issue is the space provided by Canada to anti-Indian elements to carry out anti-Indian activities within Canada and India.
Till date, Canada has not provided any evidence of India’s involvement in Nijjar’s killing. PM Trudeau has done a tremendous disservice to Canada’s credibility and reputation and to relations with India by his unsubstantiated charges.
It would be a fallacy to equate the US charges on a plot to kill Pannun with the allegations made by Canada. The US has provided some concrete information on the basis of which a committee has been established by India to look into the allegations. Canada has failed to provide any specific information even after six and a half months of Nijjar’s killing.
RELATIONS WITH OTHER WESTERN COUNTRIES
India’s ties with other Western countries have continued to be dynamic and vigorous. Leaders of all the G7 countries visited India for the G20 Summit and extended full support for the success of India’s Presidency. In addition, the Chancellor of Germany and PMs of Japan, Italy and Australia visited India in 2023. President Macron of France is expected to visit India in January 2024 as Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day.
In addition to the above, PM Modi travelled on a State visit to the US, as Chief Guest to France’s National Day, and to Japan and Australia in 2023.

The regular and frequent exchange of visits with Western countries in both directions is testimony to the sturdy and strong ties between India and the West.

RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA
India maintains a Special, Privileged and Strategic Partnership with Russia.

Annual Summits between India and Russia did not take place in 2022 or 2023. The last Annual Summit was held in New Delhi in December 2021. Regular and frequent meetings between EAM Dr S Jaishankar and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have however taken place through 2023 to keep the relations on an even keel. Both the Ministers met at least six times during 2023. In this period, Lavrov visited India for the G20 Summit, for meetings of FMs of G20 and SCO. Russia emerged as the largest supplier of crude oil to India in 2023.

During the current visit from 25-29 December 2023, EAM will meet Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Industry and Trade of Russia Denis Manturov to discuss matters related to economic engagement. He will meet his counterpart Lavrov for discussion on bilateral, multilateral and international issues. Focusing on the strong people-to-people and cultural ties between the two countries, EAM’s program will include engagements in Moscow and St. Petersburg.It will be a fallacy to see the current visit of EAM through the prism of India’s relations with the US and other Western countries. India’s relations with the West and Russia stand on their own strengths and merits. India’s partnership with the US and the West, as well as with Russia seeks to preserve and promote its national interest while at the same time giving an impetus to security, stability and prosperity in the region and the world.