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As India watches Russia & China get closer, there’s a power it’s not using. Look at Lata

The Narendra Modi government wouldn’t want to choose between the US and Russia.

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South Asian leaders bid emotional farewells to Lata Mangeshkar Sunday, with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan taking time out of his China trip to tweet that the “subcontinent has lost one of the truly great singers;” Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina describing the “great void” left by the “Sur Samraggi” or, ‘empress of music’, while pictures of the immortal singer and Hasina’s father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, in Dhaka after the 1971 war, popped up on the internet; former Afghan president Hamid Karzai tweeted that her voice “filled millions of hearts with joy.”

Ordinary South Asians were not to be left behind. Saber Ibrahimi, a young Afghan, said that during the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the duo of Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi “kept his family going…as a kid, I couldn’t tell which one was Hindu and which one was Muslim.” Atiya K. Rana, a Pakistani-American remembered how Lata Mangeshkar’s music made her parents (“Abu a village man, Ammi a very city girl”) so happy and “plz continue to soothe those souls up there with your melodies.” And Sanjeev Satgainya, editor of ‘Kathmandu Post,’ noted, “yeh zameen chup hai/aasman chup hai (the earth is quiet/the heavens are quiet).”

But Sunday belonged to a remembrance of things past; the present was bound to, sooner than later, intrude.

Also read: India and China share a grey relationship. It all hinges on ‘waiting for the right time’

The Olympic challenge

Imran Khan has returned from his four-day visit to Beijing, where, apart from witnessing the spectacular opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to deepen cooperation on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), on which China has so far spent $25 billion. Khan complained to Xi about Kashmir and said the China-Pakistan friendship, “between iron brothers,” was “an anchor for peace and stability in the region.”

Xi Jinping’s main guest at the Olympics inaugural, though, was Russian President Vladimir Putin. A joint statement issued after their meeting said the bonds between their countries had “no limits…(and) oppose the further expansion of NATO.” The Russian oil company, Rosneft, has promised to sell 100 million tons of oil to China over the next decade.

Putin hit out at countries trying to “politicise sports for their selfish interests” – he was, of course, referring to the US, UK and a handful of other Western nations, who have decided to diplomatically boycott the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games.

But so has India, primarily because one of the 1,200 torch-bearers of the Olympic flame was involved in the June 2020 clash in the Galwan valley with Indian soldiers. Doordarshan did not live telecast the event for the same reason, although if “know thy enemy” is a diplomatic fundamental, then it might have been interesting for New Delhi to see what the Chinese are up to and what Indians are up against.

Also read: Here’s why India-Russia rift will deepen with Ukraine crisis. It’s foolish thinking otherwise

Putin’s legacy

So, does this mean that the world is adjusting itself to a new demarcation of interests? The US has led the boycott charge, supported by nations like the UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Denmark and India.

Then there are the anti-boycotters – besides Putin and Imran Khan, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Abdel el-Sisi, Egypt’s authoritarian ruler, and Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso, who is seeking to reschedule his country’s $6.4 billion debt with China— who attended the Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

Of course, it’s not a new Cold War, not yet, but for India, Russia’s growing proximity with China is troubling. For the moment, New Delhi will watch and wait and see how the pendulum swings – it understands Putin’s compulsion of needing a significant power to stand beside him as he fights his anti-US crusade over Ukraine, and what better friend than China?

But if, as Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov insists that Putin is “amazingly intuitive” in his understanding of power, then the Russian president must realise, sooner than later, that the no-limits friendship between Moscow and Beijing could become a noose around Russia’s neck.

Putin, of all people, should understand what Comrade Xi is up to; the huge gap in power between Russia and China is wholly apparent. If the Russian president got a chance to look deeply into the eyes of the Chinese president in Beijing last week, he would have known that the Chinese won’t stop at anything – including, as former national security advisor Shiv Shanker Menon once described it, “vacuuming” up all the resources he needs to make China the world’s strongest nation.

Perhaps Putin doesn’t have the luxury of time on Ukraine, especially if, as Lukyanov says, he has entered the last chapter of his political career and is now considering his legacy – a key element of which is to return Russia to the world stage where it will be recognised as a significant power.

Also read: Chinese Tiger and Russian Bear together again? Beijing has openly picked side in Ukraine

Comrade Xi and Modi

As for New Delhi, for the moment it will keep its opinion to itself and carefully watch how the next few weeks unfold. Certainly, the Narendra Modi government wouldn’t want to choose between the US and Russia. Those who believe that the Delhi-Moscow friendship is limited to the purchase of arms no one else is offering, including the super-sophisticated S-400 missile systems, must realise that it is a limited understanding of the India-Russia relationship.

For sure, the sale/purchase of armaments is a critical part of the tie; for Modi, though, it is also an alternative – certainly, not a perfect one, to the somewhat sanctimonious Joe Biden administration in the US, which holds up the human rights mirror to New Delhi more often than necessary.

But Putin must also know that his deepening friendship with Comrade Xi makes Modi uncomfortable. New Delhi hasn’t publicly stated where exactly Chinese troops are sitting on the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, only admitting that Indian troops cannot patrol some areas in the Depsang valley, which they did until 2014. And despite India’s China import bill crossing a $100 billion in 2021 and external affairs minister S Jaishankar joining a recent Russia-India-China virtual meeting with his counterparts Sergey Lavrov and Wang Yi, the fact is that you can cut the hostility between India and China with a butter knife.

Xi Jinping, of course, remains intent upon expanding influence in any way he can – Pakistan is certainly fertile territory, but so is the rest of South Asia. If the Galwan soldier-cum-Olympic torch-bearer caused offence to India, then so be it.

Also read: Two words China threw at US twice this week: ‘Don’t interfere’

India needs to flex

Still, as the heartfelt responses to Lata Mangeshkar’s death showed Sunday, India can and must reinvent the manner in which it exercises its soft power and uses it as an instrument of influence across the region. Certainly, music and dance won’t fell or remove 50,000 Chinese soldiers from the LAC, but it may be time for the Modi government to expand its repertoire.

From Tibet and Central Asia to the rest of the subcontinent, Indian culture has dropped such deep roots that there is no comparison.

The opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics, for example, was certainly spectacular, but it was largely dependent on the use of technology – compare that with the hundreds of live performers choreographed into a single, cohesive whole during the opening ceremony of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India.

Still, China has thrown the gauntlet. Russia has picked it up. India watches carefully as the crisis around Ukraine bubbles to the top.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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