Why is India’s Ukraine position so vapid? Blame its navel-gazing media

March 23, 2022, 3:00 AM UTC
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and Russian president Vladimir Putin
Anjani Jain argues that India's media isn't doing enough to interrograte the country's position on Ukraine—leading to a confused foreign policy.
Sanjeev Verma—Hindustan Times

If you watched the Indian media over the last three weeks, you might think the most important story out of Ukraine was India’s repatriation of almost 18,000 Indian students stranded in Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities.

The few reports from Ukraine that break through the usual din of cricket scores, local politics and Bollywood rumors are counterbalanced by “both-sides” coverage of claims by Putin and his surrogates.

India’s population, unlike China’s or Russia’s, may have access to all the information of the globalized world, but they’re still watching a different movie.

Indian coverage of world events has always been navel-gazing, and there has been scant coverage in local outlets of actual news about Russia’s brutal war. There’s little reporting of the life-threatening situation for millions of Ukrainian civilians, the killing of families trying to flee via humanitarian corridors, the bravery of the resistance fighters, the anti-war protests in Russia, or the surprising ineptitude of the Russian military.

The Indian media’s lack of interest in what happens beyond its borders isn’t unique. But it means that Indians can’t see the failure of their foreign policy regarding Ukraine.

Instead of interrogating Indian officials on their Ukraine policy, or providing space for in-depth discussion of what India should do, Indian outlets echo the vacuity of Foreign Ministry pronouncements.

“India is deeply disturbed by recent turn of developments in Ukraine. We urge that all efforts are made for the immediate cessation of violence and hostilities,” said India’s United Nations Ambassador T.S. Tirumurti as he explained why the country abstained from the U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Russian invasion. Treading gingerly in passive voice, he added: “It is a matter of regret that the path of diplomacy was given up.” India’s abstention, the government said, preserves “the option of reaching out to relevant sides in an effort to bridge the gap and find the middle ground with an aim to foster dialogue and diplomacy.” There is little evidence that India’s fence-straddling has conferred upon her a meaningful role in brokering peace negotiations. 

The more sober historical analyses of India’s foreign policy invoke the realpolitik of India’s reliance on Soviet/Russian military hardware. India’s UN abstentions on Ukraine continue a long sequence of similar decisions that go back to the Soviet suppression of Hungary’s uprising in 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968. Indian diplomats likely presume that that Putin’s Russia will continue to reciprocate India’s loyalty as the USSR did during India’s border conflicts and on Kashmir. 

But this orthodoxy ignores the emergent “limitless” friendship between Xi and Putin. It is unlikely, for instance, that Russia will intercede if China should attempt a military grab of a border region like Ladakh. 

India’s abstentions at the UN also rest on the hope that the tortured verbiage accompanying its votes will sufficiently appease the Biden administration to forgo sanctioning India’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.

That belief may also prove to be a miscalculation. Similarly, India’s decision to proceed with the purchase of cheaper crude oil from Russia may result in a costlier loss of goodwill with the U.S. and EU.

The Ukraine crisis exposes India’s existential dependence on imported military hardware and fossil fuels even after 75 years as a sovereign nation, the Modi government’s slogans of Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) notwithstanding.

It is laudable that India made the safe evacuation of Indian citizens a national priority. But Operation Ganga—as it is named by the BJP, which never misses a branding opportunity—has been described in triumphant terms by the Prime Minister himself as a reflection of India’s growing influence in the world. In truth, the effort is not dissimilar to the efforts of other nations working to arrange safe passage out of Ukraine for their citizens in concert with neighboring countries.

An inference to draw from New Delhi’s votes on the UN resolutions is that despite the country’s connectivity to the globalized world, public opinion in India is shaped by media and social networks that remain hyperlocal and are increasingly subservient to the ruling party. The lack of independent, dissenting voices in the mass media reflects the lack of viable political opposition to the BJP in the central government and in the most populous states.

And, the global connectivity of India’s information networks fails to curb the emergence of hyperlocal clusters where opinions and selective news reverberate in echo chambers, nearly isolated from global perspectives. 

Because access to the internet and mass media is now pervasive, the media exerts greater influence on public opinion than ever before. But its hyperlocal and acquiescent posture mutes public engagement and policy debate on India’s role as the world’s largest democracy.

If many more Indians could witness, as I have, the Russian brutality unleashed upon Ukraine, their moral outrage would eventually affect New Delhi’s stance. Unfortunately, India’s information networks—hyperconnected, yet hyperlocal—serve to reinforce the orthodoxy of Indian foreign policy even though it is inimical to India’s moral stature in the world and to her national interest.

Anjani Jain is Deputy Dean for Academic Programs and Professor in the Practice of Management at Yale School of Management.

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