Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Europe this week will have proved revelatory to him on two counts. First, he will not have been left in any doubt about the passions raging through the continent over the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine. Second, he will also have realised that the same European countries have high regard for India, value their relationship with New Delhi – and want to see it acting more in sympathy with their values on the word stage.
On the first count, the evidence is both visible and audible. Ukraine dominates the news, and Ukrainian flags are flying everywhere, even in historically neutral Switzerland. Germany, which depends in Russia for 60% of its energy needs, has taken a decision to wean itself off Russian oil and gas. Even Britain's beleaguered Prime Minister Boris Johnson found that expressing solidarity with Ukraine, visiting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv and then addressing the Ukrainian Parliament, even remotely, would bolster his dwindling popularity.
This means India is clearly out of sync with European opinion, and it was good that the PM went to Europe to discover for himself first-hand how strongly countries feel about this issue. At the same time, he would have been reassured to hear his European hosts express understanding for India's position, even while expressing the hope that New Delhi would begin to see things their way.
One concrete suggestion did emerge, though, during the PM's visit to Denmark. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called on India to use its good relations with Russia to bring about peace. As a country that has consistently, even tiresomely, kept calling for both countries to adopt the diplomatic path, and stressed that peace is in everybody's interest, such a challenge would fit right in to India's current stance on the Ukrainian war.
But it is easier said than done. Israel and Turkey have both tried to broker peace negotiations, with little to show for it. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was in Moscow and Kyiv last week, but not a glimmer of progress emerged from his visit. French President Macron has no doubt briefed Modi on the failures of his frequent calls to President Putin. The Russians seem disinclined to make peace, and as Western weapons keep pouring into Ukraine, the victims are not too keen on suing for peace either. Both sides seem to think that they can win this war.
Our Prime Minister was right to say that there will be no winners, whatever happens in this conflict – but getting the warring parties to realise that will be no easy task.
Still, diplomacy is not only about pursuing guaranteed success. Sometimes the effort must be made, both because the scale of the suffering and destruction warrant the effort, and also because, if India wants its claims to a permanent seat on the Security Council to be taken seriously, it must assert itself on issues that have little or nothing to do with its own immediate interests.
Playing peace-maker and go-between came naturally to Nehru's India in the 1950s – in Korea, Laos, the Suez crisis, and Cambodia, to name a few of the many situations in which Indian diplomacy was active at that time. Today, at a time when reports of rising intolerance and Islamophobia at home have tarnished India’s image abroad, a significant attempt to broker peace between the two antagonists (rather than just rhetorically calling for it) will help burnish the country's credentials before the world. Any takers in Delhi?