SOVIET HOPES IN JANATA
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
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
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
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
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.