At the bustling tea stands and roadside eateries of Delhi, European politics is not a regular topic of conversation. But with wall-to-wall coverage of the war in Ukraine on television and in the newspapers, petrol prices rising and pressure growing on the prime minister, Narendra Modi, to denounce Russia, Indians are starting to grapple with the consequences of the conflict 2,800 miles away.
Ram Agarwal, a shopkeeper, does not condone the loss of civilian life but nor can he bring himself to criticise Russia. He grew up in the 1950s and 60s when India and the Soviet Union were such close allies that Nikita Khrushchev coined the slogan “Hindi Rusi bhai bhai” (Indians and Russians are brothers).
“I am 74 and my generation grew up with Hindi Rusi bhai bhai. It’s like attacking a dear old friend,” he said.
Arvind Maurya, an electrician, also expressed the even-handedness that has marked much of the public response. “I hear that Ukraine used to be a part of Russia, but instead of respecting that, Nato is pulling Ukraine into its own orbit. But war is never good for anyone and the Russian bombing of civilians is not the way to solve these differences. They must sit down and talk,” he said.
But away from the street, feelings are stronger. Indians from the right and left have converged on the war, the former because of their antipathy towards western culture and the latter because of their anti-Americanism, particularly in relation to foreign policy.
For these two groups, the war has exposed what they see as the west’s double standards and hypocrisy. Its interventions in other countries and campaigns of regime change are acceptable, but not Russia’s.
In a column, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, contrasted western support for sanctions against Iraq before 2003, which he said had killed “hundreds of thousands of children”, with the indignation over Ukraine.
“Compare the outrage over bombs falling on Ukraine, which have resulted in around 200 civilian deaths (as of February 22) – not even a fraction of the deaths caused by the US invasions, occupations and attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya,” he wrote.
There is considerable support for the claim that Ukraine and Nato provoked Russia to the point where it had no choice but to invade. These views, expressed by analysts, politicians and retired military officers, have featured prominently in television debates.
Vinod Bhatia, a former air marshal, said Nato had promised Soviet leaders and later Putin that it would not keep expanding eastwards, but had reneged on its promise, a claim that has been pushed by the Kremlin. Nato denies it ever made such an agreement.
“The west is equally responsible, with Putin, for this totally avoidable and unnecessary war,” Bhatia said.
The claims of hypocrisy also extend to how European countries continue to buy Russian oil and gas while expecting India to impose sanctions on Russia. “Why should India pay for US folly in drawing Ukraine into Nato? US sanctions are hurting us and we should support them?” the former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal asked in the Times of India.
Given the mood, Modi is under little public pressure at home to get off the fence, though some editorials have called India’s position “tragic” and “untenable”. India has abstained from condemning Russia at the UN while trying to keep the west happy with talk of peace. It is a balancing act with which Joe Biden may be losing patience. Last week, Biden described India’s stance as “shaky”.
American prodding of India to toe the western line and denounce Russia can evoke an irascible response. Brahma Chellaney, a strategic affairs analyst, asked why India should line up with the west when no one, least of all America, speaks up for India over Chinese aggression on the border with India, where a standoff has lasted almost two years.
“At a time when India confronts China’s border aggression, including its threat of a full-scale war, Biden won’t open his mouth on that but he calls India’s response ‘shaky’ to a distant war he helped to provoke,” Chellaney tweeted.
The war rhetoric has alarmed some commentators who have flinched at the portrayal of Putin and Russia as evil. For one, the epithet does not resonate among Indians, where China that is seen as the biggest threat.
Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr, a columnist, has been dismayed at how “the United States is turning Putin into a Saddam Hussein and how, when Biden calls Putin a ‘war criminal’, it leaves no space for negotiation. It is deeply alarming, the American rhetoric, because unlike Saddam, who had no weapons of mass destruction, Putin does. The whole pitch borders on hysterical.”
Up to a point, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s foremost commentators, agrees with these criticisms. Europe, he says, is caught between its desire to send a strong message to Russia and sanctimonious moralising. Its credibility is impugned because it is simply not willing to pay even the minimal economic price for a strong stand.
Yet for Indians to expose western hypocrisy is not enough for Mehta because it fails to answer the wider question of what kind of world order Indians want to build.
Writing in the Indian Express, he said: “An America losing capital outside the west because of its hypocrisy, a Europe still speaking in forked tongues, a Russia that would rather see the world and its own citizens suffer, and India and China using western hypocrisy as a cover for displaying an outright cynicism, is not a good portent for a world order.”