M.L. Sondhi
The Tribune, April 22, 1978

On April 6,  Mr. Yuli M. Vorontsov, the new Soviet Ambassador to India, had his first meeting with the Prime Minister, Mr. Morarji Desai. Mr. Vorontsov has enough expertise for the important task of interpreting the change in the political environment in India.  The changing power structure in the country is undoubtedly receiving a great deal of attention from the Soviet policy-making machinery.  Those who are contributing to the overall reassessment include persons as different as Mr. I.V. Arkhipov (who heads the prestigious Joint Inter-Governmental Soviet Indian Commission on Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation) and Mr. Giedar Aliev, CP:SU Politburo member and a delegate to the Bhatinda meeting of the CPI.

But the problems of Soviet decision-making also require speculation on what may be called (in the absence of a better term) the “plot structure” of diplomatic dispositions.  This mixture of anxiety and hope faces Soviet diplomacy as it assesses the opportunity costs of its actions in India.

Small wonder that after the Janata victory in the 1977 general elections the goals of short-term policy seemed rather obscure to Moscow’s man in India then, Mr. Maltsev.  The following story may be apocryphal, but it is instructive.  With a somewhat phlegmatic expression Mr. Maltsev had his first meeting with the new External Affairs Minister, Mr. Vajpayee.


The conversation began by the Soviet side affirming that they had no desire to interfere in India’s internal affairs.  Mr. Vajpayee showed an entertaining side of his personality by insisting that the Indian side wanted to interfere in the domestic concerns of Soviet foreign policy.  Without any conscious paternalism he expressed the firm hope that the Soviets would continue to use Mr. Maltsev in India and he, in turn, would keep Mr. Gujral in office in Moscow.  Business as usual.  This was a type of friendly domesticity for which Mr. Maltsev, though pleasantly surprised, had no “watching brief.”

From the diplomatic standpoint, Mr. Vorontsov’s constant preoccupation will be the continuing management of policy at the optimum level achieved during Mr. Morarji Desai’s visit to Moscow.  Although it is not in public knowledge, there is an extensive flow of communications between India and the Soviet Union.  Their embassies have to cope with scores of issues in foreign policy, bilateral or multilateral in nature, every day.

As a member of previous Indian Governments some years ago, Mr. Morarji Desai has been closely connected with the definition of goals and objectives of Indo-Soviet relations.  The declaratory aspects of India’s “genuine non-alignment” have been sophisticated and are in line with the efforts of the Soviet Union for a political détente.  It is, however, in the operational aspects that Indian diplomatic practice is posing certain questions.  On the other hand, while the Janata Government has a major interest in improving its relations with the Soviet Union on the bedrock of a national policy consensus, a caveat is in order concerning any external interference in the stability of Indian domestic policy.


The flexibility and effectiveness of Soviet diplomacy at times comes up against ideological assessments which are not very helpful in bilateral terms.

The Ulyanovsky assessment published in Pravda in the beginning of 1969, for example, unnecessarily intertwined ideological pronouncements with the priorities stemming from objective national interests.  Similarly, today when an important Soviet policymaker like Boris Ponomarev develops an attitude at the Budapest meeting on ideological questions which may sharpen the antagonism of political forces in the Third World, India may see difficulties in the fulfillment of diplomatic tasks, if the relevance of non-alignment is interpreted in a compulsive manner.

India’s experience over the years has led it to the conclusion that the non-aligned should shun the bloc mentality.  Regional considerations have also led Mr. Desai’s Government to new foreign policy priorities.  The modalities of foreign policy initiatives are not helped by propaganda campaigns, even in the name of consolidating peace and security.

Mr. Morarji Desai is personally appreciative of Mr. Brezhnev’s abiding concern for disarmament and resolution of international conflicts.  The Soviet leader’s recent speech in Vladivostock has made a good impression in Delhi.  Mr. Desai will undoubtedly take it into account while giving his own constructive suggestions at the forthcoming U.N. Special Session on Disarmament.  India’s parliamentarism and its open political society, however, make their country’s foreign policy more flexible and adaptive than would be expected from the terminology in which it is expressed.  Thus even the previous Indian Government led by Mrs. Gandhi was stressing pragmatism in action while adopting a verbal strategy closely coordinated with the Soviet conceptual framework.

One can conceive of circumstances where Mr. Desai may give strong support to the Soviet Union, (for example, if a major step forward is taken to limit armaments), but it is unlikely that Indian policy will be frozen in immobility in the same way as sometimes happened in the cold war era.  The implication for Soviet policy is that there are elements of both continuity and change in India, and Mr. Desai’s objectives in external relations stem from his overriding desire to strengthen Indian credibility with reference to the national interest and the regional developments.

Mr. Vorontsov can be legitimately concerned with translating Soviet capabilities into political influence in India.  There is a real asset in the Indian people’s aspirations for peace and their appreciation of the achievements in science, culture, sports and technology of Russians and other nationalities living in the Soviet Union.


What are the realities of the situation for strengthening Soviet links with India?  There are three major contexts within which Mr. Vorontsov will have to pursue his main policies and interests:  the context of a cooperative relationship with the Janata Government and its major constituents; the context of the long-term future of the Congress (I) and the need for crystal ball gazing to determine the future career of Mrs. Gandhi; and the context of CPI-CP(M) relations, with both these parties wanting the Soviet cake and eating it too.

There is considerable ground for debate about various “right” and “left” formulas about the Janata constituents.  There are ample precedents in the Soviet foreign policy for dealing with Governments which have assimilated different political forces.  In spite of the difficulties in meeting the intense demands of the Indian political system, the Janata conglomerate is a big fact of life.  Mr. Vorontsov will, therefore, not say or do anything officially which forecloses relations with any of the major political entities in the Janata alliance.  It gives a wrong political accent to say that this requires bridging of an “ideological gap.”  It is actually a question of greater accommodation on the Soviet and the Indian sides while taking initiatives in economic, cultural and intellectual areas which have been on the periphery of the existing bureaucratic experience on both sides.

The national commitments in the Janata manifesto cannot by any stretch of imagination be construed as creating difficulties in conducting Indo-Soviet relations.  There is a new professionalism in the Soviet Union in the field of art and culture which can take advantage of the new consensus building up on the Janata side, and this non-monolithic approach may help to develop Indo-Soviet commercial relations to a still higher level.


The major constraint in Soviet acceptance of Indian pluralism will probably stem from the advice it received from its friends in the CPI like Mr. S.A. Dange and Mr. C. Rajeshwar Rao.  Here we are confronted with a host of unpredictable political variables.  The CPSU delegate at Bhatinda paid a rich tribute to the historic role of these two CPI leaders.  Does this statement affirm a continuing partnership in political goals between the CPSP and the CPI or does it fittingly bring to a close an outlook and policy which has lost its dynamic quality in the new Indian situation?

The Congress (I) has created a fluid context by its strong populist operations and many “independent” leftists have found a new role for themselves by trying to reassure both the Congress(I) and the Soviet Union, of certain affinities which may be developed in future.  Mr. Vorontsov will have to make an all-out research effort in coping with the advice he will receive from his well-meaning “independent” leftist friends.

The real challenge for Soviet diplomacy is to understand the character of Indian democracy and to bring in its policy-making process greater concern for humanitarian action and to be content with somewhat tenuous ideological-missionary links with Indian society.  Mr. Vorontsov’s role is somewhat analogous to that of a distinguished Soviet diplomat to Britain before World War II, Mr. I.V. Maisky.  If due regard had been paid to the latter’s warning signals it would have been of benefit to the host nation as well as his own country.
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