U.S. lawmakers from both parties urge New Delhi to take a stand on the Russian invasion of Ukraine

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India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves next to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, December 6, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

In the backdrop of the much-touted growing and deepening bilateral relationship between the two democracies, India and U.S., lawmakers in Congress from both parties, expressed disappointment on India abstaining at the United Nations Security Council and later the General Assembly, on a vote “deploring” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine March 2, 2022.

The State Department official in charge of India made a spirited defense of India’s geostrategic constraints, and while continuing to describe the bilateral relationship as the most significant partnership, indicated U.S. might reconsider its position on waiving a law that punishes countries for buying certain defense technologies on grounds they threaten the U.S.

CAATSA, Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, contains a provision, which could have applied to India when it signed a $5.43 billion deal with Russia in 2018, to purchase the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, a step that U.S. considers a threat to it, as it indicated when Turkey moved to purchase the same system.

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Though they recognized New Delhi’s continuing defense dependence on Moscow, lawmakers at the hearing ironically, hoped New Delhi would follow a foreign policy based on the two countries’ converging values of democracy and freedom rather than national security interests.

At a hearing March 2, 2022, of the Senate Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism, on Capitol Hill, chaired by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, leading lawmakers questioned Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs Donald Lu, who said U.S. was trying to close the gap between New Delhi and Washington, on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, usually counted as a ‘friend’ of India, said he was “extremely disappointed” in India’s decision to abstain at UN. He asked what the thinking behind such a vote was on the part of India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar.

Lu responded by saying India had expressed two concerns – 1. It wanted to leave on the table the ability to pursue diplomatic negotiations; and 2. India was concerned about it 18,000 students in Ukraine.

Lu agreed with the lawmakers that India’s position at the UN March 2 in the General Assembly vote, smacked of Cold War positions and hearkened back to decades ago.

Van Hollen noted how in the past he had been in favor of waiving CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) for India to get S-400 Triumf Russian-made mobile surface-to-air missile system. “Will this vote of India (at UN) affect CAATSA,” he questioned.

“The Biden administration will consider CAATSA,” Lu said, but noted that India had already cancelled orders for Russian made weapons such as the MIG 29 aircraft, anti-tank weapons etc. “India is a very important security partner,” Lu cautioned, adding, “We value moving forward,” and indicated the Biden administration hopes New Delhi will get further away from Russia.

Earlier, a Reuters report quoting Indian officials on background saying they believed the U.S. won’t apply much pressure on New Delhi for abstaining at the UN because of its dependence on legacy defense equipment from Russia.

However, the Capitol Hill hearing made it amply clear U.S. lawmakers from both parties were not bound by any such thinking. They emphasized their “disappointment” that India did not go by its “values” of democracy, even as they expressed their understanding that New Delhi was prioritizing its national security concerns albeit in view of China’s expansionist efforts on the Himalayan border.

Senator Todd Young, R-Indiana, asked how U.S. could encourage India to continue deepening its relationship with The Quad and reduce its dependence on Russian weaponry.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, was most emphatic on her disappointment with India’s stand at the UN. India should be “on notice” that it should stand by its values, Shaheen said.

Lu, who has 30-years of experience in South Asia and has lived in India for several years, argued for New Delhi, echoing previous statements by both President Obama and Joe Biden of the U.S.-India relationship as the ‘defining partnership” of the century.

Closing The Gap

He said Washington had been having “very serious high level” dialogue with India over several months on the Ukraine situation, and that already there was a visible “evolution” of that country’s views regarding the Russian involvement in Ukraine.

With the killing of an Indian student in Ukraine, public opinion in India was veering on Russia he indicated. In addition, India’s statements on the ongoing European conflict had called for following international norms in the conflict, and, India was sending humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, Lu pointed out.

“We are making small steps … to close the gap,” between “our views and those of India,” on the Russia-Ukraine imbroglio, Lu said.

Lu noted that the growing sanctions on Russia’s financial assets, would make it hard for any country to buy or pay for arms purchases. “If you don’t have a banking system, it would be difficult to pay for the legacy systems,” or to buy new technologies, an issue India is surely worried about and grappling with Lu said.

The current scenario presented an opportunity for U.S. exports to fill the gap in India’s defense needs, Lu added. He pointed to a 53 percent reduction in India’s defense purchases from Russia over recent years, and that U.S. is India’s second-largest source of defense technology with plans to buy more.

The Quad

From left, PM Yoshihide Suga of Japan, PM Narendra Modi, President Biden, and Australian PM Scott Morrison pose for a photo before the Quad meeting Sept. 24, 2021. Photo Twitter PMOIndia

Membership in The Quad (U.S.-Japan-Australia-India) alliance, was a significant part of the issues discussed. While Lu stressed the importance of the alliance, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, questioned the Biden administration’s approach saying it had veered toward climate change and other issues rather than focusing on containing China’s expansionist ambitions.

Calling India and the U.S. “natural allies,” Cruz said, “Under President Trump our countries moved together significantly closer,” recounting the September 2019 visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Texas and the Howdy Modi! event. “In the past year under the Biden administration, relations have deteriorated significantly,” culminating in the abstention vote by India in the UN, Cruz contended. During the Trump presidency, Cruz said, U.S.-India relations were the cornerstone to deter China, an approach institutionalized in The Quad, but under Biden, the Quad has been de-prioritized and the group has pivoted away from countering China.

Lu argued against that view saying he was at recent Quad meetings in Melbourne, Australia, and every discussion was about countering China.

At one point, Lu described the India-Russia relationship as a relic of the Cold War, and likened it to the U.S. relationship to Pakistan, over many decades, both of which have entered new phases under changed global conditions.

Lu also stressed how India has been sold American surveillance technology, and was the only country where Washington did not have to police its use.

India has diversified its arms purchases over the last ten years to include Israel, European countries, noted Republican Senator Todd Young.

Indian Elections

Issues such as human rights, the status of women, treatment of religious minorities especially Muslims, and the ongoing elections in Uttar Pradesh were raised during the hearing.

Talking about the state elections in India, Lu said Indian politics was a ‘blood sport’ and ‘ruthless’ but that he had “never seen” the dirty tricks or sealing of elections in that democracy. The electoral system itself is “very strong,” Lu said, and concluded that Prime Minister Modi and his party “appear to retain a lot of support in the country.”

The Congress Party, Lu said, “is trying to find its identity” and unless it does, it will be hard for it to be a strong opposition.

As for the situation in Kashmir, Lu said, India was taking some steps to restore normalcy. And cross-border skirmishes were down.

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