The Indian diaspora all around the world, particularly those living in the global west, including in New Zealand, are confounded on how best to respond to the ongoing Ukraine Crisis as they see their peers across the Western nations jumping the bandwagon to criticise and demonise Russia’s brazen act of aggression on the East European nation.

Undeniably, this unassuming quietness of the otherwise vocal Indian diaspora, on such an important issue that has consolidated the entire global west into one block in an unprecedented manner for the first time ever after the end of the Cold War - emanates from India’s own foreign policy dilemma of responding to this crisis.

Till now, India has chosen to remain a silent bystander by abstaining from voting in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and refusing to overtly criticise Russia for the act of aggression on its neighbour – a position likely to be untenable if the escalation continues longer.

In recent years, the Indian diaspora had been enjoying an unprecedented bonhomie with their western peers all around the world, which has shown an enhanced understanding about India’s own security challenges back home, including foreign-sponsored cross border terrorism at the western frontiers, increasing belligerence of China towards the North and Northeast along with a growing nexus between the adversaries on both frontiers.

Against this backdrop, there may be some bewilderment within the members of the Indian diaspora on how to face, if not deflect completely, this growing pressure of expectations from the citizenry of the western societies, where they have been thriving for years. 

In this regard, a quick explainer is in order to throw some light on why India is behaving as the quintessential deer caught in headlights.

What is India’s foreign policy dilemma in Ukraine crisis?

India watchers will know that for many years, particularly after the end of the Cold War, the Indian political establishment has often been tasked to reconcile between the two mutually competing strands within the Indian foreign policy thinking – an unapologetic ambition of becoming a great power with the overt support from the US-led global west – and the long-held traditional world view of rooting for a multipolar world order.

Both these strands in Indian foreign policy thinking have their genesis in the complexities and challenges posed during the Cold War era and the opportunities presented after the end of the Cold War.

During the Cold War era, India’s ruling political elites visualised the US and the countries of the global West from the prism of “Western imperialism” which was only natural after having to experience the brunt of imperialism for many centuries and were deeply committed to work towards a multipolar world order and in that endeavour found a sympathiser and an all-whether friendship from the erstwhile Soviet Union (later replaced by Russia).

However, after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the then Indian political establishment decided to shed all ideological baggage and pursue India’s core national interests (procuring access to technology, capital, markets, and defence capabilities) without any pretence attached which progressively resulted in warming up towards the US-led global west.

In the following years, India’s foreign thinking has largely been dominated by the latter strand, with sporadic emergence of the traditional thought process of avoiding to get entirely subsumed by the global west and instead continue to maintain “strategic autonomy” – considered by many as the holy grail of the Indian foreign policy thinking.

It is this holy grail of “strategic autonomy” in Indian foreign policy behaviour that has come in the line of fire in the current ongoing Ukraine Crisis.

Like any other aspiring power, which requires ambiguity and non-commitment on issues beyond its capabilities and immediate strategic interests, India is also keen to see through this crisis without having to be forced to come out in the open prematurely and put at stake its own national interests for no tangible gains in quid pro.

By unequivocally supporting the US-led global West’s call to criticise Russia, India faces the risk of losing a time-tested and reliable supply of advanced military weaponry and high-end defence technologies, which indeed does not augur well for a country besieged with its own security issues pertaining to two nuclearised adversaries and highly militarised unsettled borders.

This is why India’s foreign policy establishment is refraining from sleepwalking into the US-led global West’s appeals for condemning Russia and hurting its core national interest.

Indeed, India has, on many previous occasions, weathered such vagaries of international relations by remaining ambiguous on issues that are beyond the realm of its core national interests by carefully manoeuvring its alignment with other major powers of the international system. (India spearheaded the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) for many decades leading many countries into a position that stayed neutral in many a tug-of-war between the US and the erstwhile USSR).

Current Prime Minister Modi’s speed in strategic realignment with the US and the newfound spunk in managing the country’s foreign policy is creating a semblance of stress within the foreign policy establishment.

It is noteworthy that Prime Minister Modi had in recent years successfully used  foreign policy to consolidate the global Indian diaspora’s support for his ruling Bhartiya Janta Party with an eye on shoring up his popular domestic base at home.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that the current expectations for a hands-on response to the Ukraine crisis is largely an outcome of Modi’s otherwise boisterous foreign policy.

However, despite the level of humanitarian crisis from the ongoing Russian attack on Ukraine, India has few options other than maintaining ambiguity and focusing on reducing human loss and misery in the conflict zone.

Prime Minister Modi may be well served to not give ears to any calls of adventurism and play out in the open.

Like all previous great power aspirants within the international order, India, too, needs to operate under a measured level of ambiguity for the foreseeable future.