Being good is one thing, but that’s no guarantee for a good image

It’s time India took appropriate lessons from the Ukraine war and set its narrative-making machinery in order. For, what the Russians are facing today, India may find itself in a similar situation in the future, especially vis-à-vis China

Russia and America are similar in many ways. Yet, they invariably get projected differently. Author Brian Landers brings out this aspect in his book, Empires Apart: America and Russia from the Vikings to Iraq, as he points at two events in the early 20th century — one in Tsarist Russia while the other in democratic America.

“On Bloody Sunday in 1905 Russian troops fired on outside the imperial palace in St Petersburg. Nobody knows exactly how many were killed: There are widely differing estimates, and it is not surprising that both official and unofficial reports need to be treated with considerable scepticism. The likelihood is that around a hundred died, far less than in an equivalent event in Tulsa, Oklahoma, sixteen years later. One of America’s worst pogroms broke out when a local newspaper fabricated a story about a black man raping a white woman in a lift and, in an editorial, predicted his lynching,” he writes.

Landers then points at an interesting phenomenon at how Russia and America treated the two events: “Tsarist Russia was an autocracy: Massacring the protesters is the sort of thing autocrats do, so events like Bloody Sunday fit our expectations. America is a democracy: Massacring the innocent is not the sort of thing democracies do, so the Tulsa Pogrom does not find mention. The consequence is that Bloody Sunday reinforces what we already know and is added to the evidence bank of history. The Tulsa Pogrom contradicts what we already know and therefore must have been an aberration.”

The two incidents remind us how they can be interpreted differently despite being similar in nature. It reinforces the notion that an event often turns positive or negative as per the prevailing ideologies of the respective nations and, most importantly, who wields the power at that moment.

It is this narrative that made Barack Obama a more humane President, though as per a Foreign Policy article by Daniel Byman he was more ruthless in taking the drone route to target Islamist terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan despite a high percentage of civilian responsibility. “Whereas President George W Bush oversaw fewer than 50 drone strikes during his tenure, Obama has signed off on over 400 of them in the last four years, making the program the centerpiece of US counterterrorism strategy wrote,” he. Similarly, according to a study by the Brookings Institution, as noted by Niall Fergusson in his Kissinger biography, “the United States used military action or threats of military action three times more often in the Kennedy years than in the Kissinger years.” Interventions ranged from an abortive invasion of Cuba to a bloody coup d’état in South Vietnam.” Yet, Kennedy has been much-loved, admired President, and Nixon, a reviled one!

Perception makes or breaks a person, in life as in politics. It gives one a license to kill or, worse, get killed. The ongoing Ukrainian crisis, which threatens to assume a bigger, more monstrous proportion with each passing day, too points in that direction. Even before a bullet was fired, Russian President Vladimir was showcased in a Hitler-ian mould, a madman hell-bent upon pushing the world on the precipice of a World War. This even when there had been enough evidence to suggest that Russia was arm-twisted to attack Ukraine. It was pushed into the corner by the US-led NATO’s eastward movement.

File image of Russian president Vladimir Putin. AP

Russia had protested in the past too when, in 1999, Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic moved away from the Russian orbit to join NATO; and then in another expansion five years down the line, seven Central and Eastern European nations such a Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia entered the Western military club. Russia was angry at the assimilation of these nations, but it didn’t go beyond lodging protesters. So, why did Putin take up arms this time? Because Ukraine joining NATO would have brought the Western guns and missiles to the Russian borders. There would be no buffer zone any more. Russians fear they would be next in the firing line.

Russia’s was not really an irrational reaction. The US too behaved the same way when the Soviet missiles were stationed in Cuba in the early 1960s, bringing the world almost on the cusp of a nuclear war. And if the US could have the luxury of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, which prohibited European powers from interfering in the Americas and which was invoked as recently as in 2008 by Obama, the Russians expected similar courtesy, at least with their immediate neighbors like Ukraine.

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With its Ukraine misadventure, the Biden Administration has exposed what has long been feared: The failure of the Americans to grasp the realities of the 21st century geopolitics. The Americans have failed to realize that the axis of global politics has in the last decade or so shifted from Europe to Asia, which is the new battlefield, of man and machine, idea and ideology. Dragon is the new enemy, though it is still able to keep its blood-dipped claws hidden in the dark. It may not just be the result of the failure of the American imagination that lets the US go beyond Europe, but also, more alarmingly, the result of the Chinese intrusion into the American institutions, thus eating them from inside. Americans may not even know who they are betting for and why. And this makes the battle even more intriguing and intense.

Ukraine lessons for India Being good is one thing but thats no guarantee for good image

US President Joe Biden. A

Fareed Zakaria, in his book Post-American World, points at another American trait that may have influenced its Chinese policy. He writes, “Americans may admire beauty, but they are truly dazzled by bigness… Europeans prefer complexity, the Japanese revere minimalism. But Americans like size, preferably supersize. That’s why China hits the American mind so hard.” Maybe the Americans know who their real enemy is, but they are too dazzled to concede that. They may have turned ostrich-like, hoping the Chinese challenge may vanish on its own.

Coming to the war of narratives, it’s so obvious who is winning that battle: The West, despite being the real provocateur in the current crisis, has managed to take the moral high ground. It has managed to turn Ukraine into a battle between good and bad. Putin may be having the upper hand in the Ukraine conflict, but the psy-war tells a different story altogether. No wonder a London-based newspaper did a story decoding Putin’s facial expressions whiledef a meeting with Russian officials. The paper’s verdict was that Putin’s expressions were all tense and gloomy, so all was not well in Russia!

There were also reports on protests in Russia over Putin’s war in Ukraine. In contrast, Ukrainians were shown as democrats par excellence, with a mad scramble to project on the social media how ‘non-violent’ Ukrainians are bravely standing up to armed-to-the-teeth Russians. But, as someone pointed out on Twitter, aren’t the same photographs a vindication that the Russians are acting in a more restrained manner? Didn’t Putin’s Air Force show restraint by not indulging in indiscriminate bombing of Kyiv and other cities after Ukraine’s air power was neutralised on the first day of the war?

India must take a cue from the Ukrainian war and build its narrative-making capabilities, which, like Russia, are a suspect now. In fact, one can comprehend the Indian handicap from the fact that Indian media, despite the Modi government taking a distinct line from the West, seems to be following the Western narrative on the war. The same photographs of Ukrainian doggedness, Putin’s unreasonableness and the West’s moralistic narrative find a place in Indian media. There’s very little effort to look for the Russian perception of the war.

Ukraine lessons for India Being good is one thing but thats no guarantee for good image

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

One distinct fallacy of the Indian reporting has been the projection of Ukrainian consensus in fighting the Russians. The fact is Ukraine is deeply divided, with the eastern part being pro-Russian while the western part supporting the West; There’s also a strong pro-Nazi element present in the Ukrainian side against the Russians.

It’s time India took appropriate lessons from the Ukraine war and set its narrative-making machinery in order. For, what the Russians are facing today, India may find itself in a similar situation in the future, especially vis-à-vis China. Being good is one thing. Being seen as good is an entirely different ballgame. It’s something India needs to learn, much like Russia, its all-weather friend.

This is the concluding part of the two-part series on the Ukraine war. Click here to read the first part.

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