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As Russia continues its assault on Ukraine, one major democracy has noticeably balked at siding with the rest of the free world: India. 

New Delhi has thrice abstained from United Nations votes on the Russian invasion, voting the same as China. Earlier this month and because of New Delhi's requestsa joint statement by the leaders of the Quad — a proto-alliance that includes the United States, India, Australia, and Japan —  stopped short of condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. and other Western officials say the future of the world order is at stake in Ukraine. But India’s inaction at this critical juncture reveals the limits of our strategic convergence. 

A blank check for India

With its massive economy, large naval forces, and strategic location in the Indian Ocean region, India could serve as a counterweight to Beijing in South Asia and the broader region. Washington and New Delhi have taken significant steps to improve military cooperation, including the interoperability of forces.

Over the past two decades, U.S. policy toward India has been underpinned by what scholar Ashley Tellis calls “strategic altruism.” The idea is this: America aids India’s advance as a global power, expecting little, if anything, in return. Washington does so believing that a stronger India, even if it diverges often from U.S. foreign policy, will invariably constrain China. This serves America’s primary national interest.

But strategic altruism has amounted to a blank check for India. It allows India to remain a free rider, benefiting from American magnanimity while never having to make the sacrifices necessary for a truly meaningful strategic partnership. It also gives India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party the protective cover to dismantle the country’s secular system.

Fundamental divergences

Observers sympathetic to India’s strategic predicament argue that its choices on Russia are constrained by their historic relationship. (Formal Russia-India ties date back to the Soviet era, and New Delhi still relies on Moscow for more than 60% of its military hardware.) They also note that New Delhi has taken steps to diversify its foreign arms procurement. 

But rather than decisively moving away from Russia, in the past year India has taken significant steps to bolster the bilateral defense partnership. In December, as the momentum for war against Ukraine gained pace, India renewed a 10-year military cooperation pact with Russia and received a delivery of the S-400 Russian air defense system, despite the threat of U.S. sanctions. 

Like any sovereign country, India has every right to pursue its national interest. But American policymakers must accept reality. The U.S.-India strategic divergence goes beyond Russia. It is far more fundamental. 

Geopolitical polyamory

Senior Indian officials like Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar say plainly and publicly that they have no aspirations to become an ally of the U.S. They declare that their country will maintain its strategic autonomy and avoid formal alignments. 

India sees America as a declining power. They see an emerging, multipolar world order with multiple centers of power. As a result, India pursues what it calls “multi-alignment.” In Jaishankar’s words, it seeks “convergence with many but congruence with none.” This is the geopolitical equivalent of commitment-free polyamory.

India will never join the ranks of America’s liberal democratic allies. Unlike our Transatlantic partners, India’s strategic community has little affinity for American global leadership. As a post-colonial country, India resents the global power structure created after the end of the Second World War. 

Tellingly, from 2000 to 2019, India’s key votes at the U.N. General Assembly aligned with those of America only 20% of the time. By comparison, Australia and Japan voted with the U.S. nearly 70% of the time over the same period.

It is time for America to abandon strategic altruism and demand more of India.

Applying pressure

The United States must draw a clear red line on India’s relations with Russia. The Biden administration should sanction India under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act for its purchase of the S-400.

Washington also must end the “India exception” on human rights. With the rise of Yogi Adityanath – a militant Hindu monk who could succeed Prime Minister Narendra Modi this decade — the fate of India’s Christians and Muslims hangs in the balance.

Later this year, the State Department should finally designate India as a violator of religious freedom. The U.S. government should also sanction Indian officials and ruling party members who have orchestrated religious violence, including the anti-Muslim pogroms that took place during Donald Trump’s 2020 visit. Finally, as press freedoms erode in India, it is important that the U.S. re-establish the Voice of America Hindi service, which was shut down in 2008.

The U.S.-India relationship is important to balancing China in Asia. But we cannot continue to overestimate India’s geopolitical value and its desire to partner with us. All relationships must be two-way streets. By pressing India on Russia and human rights, we can begin to restore balance to a relationship that from our end has been far too altruistic.

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, a political risk advisory company focused on the Middle East and South Asia. The views expressed are the author's own.