Modi has the chance to break out of India's passive mode and firmly tell Russia that in this day and age, India will not support unilateral invasions, asserts Harishchandra Dighe.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has undeniably stunned the world.
In the second fifth of the 21st century, one does not expect to see an European nation actually invade another country, just like the Soviet Union did when its forces crossed into Poland on September 17, 1939, thereby supporting Nazi Germany which had begun the invasion on September 1, 1939, triggering World War II.
The current invasion has caught the world off-guard, not the least India, which is torn between its old ally Russia, and its growing friendship with the US and the West.
This invasion also gives Prime Minister Narendra Modi a once-in-a-generation chance to leave his mark on India's foreign policy.
It all depends on how he navigates the treacherous path between Russia and the US, the moral questions raised (not that morals matter too much in international relations), and the reality of power politics.
Choosing the right path might mean that a grateful nation will forever hail him the way we remember Dr Manmohan Singh for his economic liberalisation.
There are no easy answers ahead, but one thing is certain: Ignoring the problem is not an issue.
For India, the biggest dilemma is whether or not to support the West.
As of now, India has chosen to keep silent and sit on the fence, only calling for an end to all violence.
Clearly, India is chary about going against Russia and wary about hurting its burgeoning ties with the West.
The call to stay on the side of Russia is strong.
As some persons have pointed out, the West did little to help India much when Chinese troops attacked and 'captured' territory in Galwan and other areas in Ladakh bordering China two years ago.
But the political reality is that China is growing closer to Russia with each passing day.
Beijing has condemned the invasion and blamed the West for forcing Moscow's hand.
In life, as in politics, my enemy's enemy is my friend.
That explains China's all-weather friendship with Pakistan.
The Pakistan-China axis is worrisome for India, but the same axis with Russia not on India's side changes the equation forever.
No wonder then that over the last many years, India and the West, especially the US, have been growing closer thanks to their mutual dislike of China, and some common shared values.
This is a relationship all governments, regardless of ideology, have pursued.
Acknowledging this growing alliance, Washington even renamed its Pacific Command as the mIndo-Pacific Command, to New Delhi's eternal delight.
Truth is, India's deep friendship is yesterday's news, the alliance with the West is tomorrow's headlines.
How much can India really support Russia which is increasingly growing closer to China?
There is another concern.
Russia unilaterally recognised the independence of two Ukrainian regions bordering Russia: Donetsk and Luhansk.
This is simply unacceptable.
How would India react if China (or Pakistan) unilaterally recognised Kashmir as an independent territory and sent in troops to support Kashmir separatists?
Let Indians never forget that we sent troops into Sri Lanka to preserve that country's territorial integrity and help the Sinhalese government put down Tamil separatists.
Allowing Russia to get away with such unilateral recognition is fraught with risk for India's many border territories.
This is not to say borders can never be changed, but certainly that borders cannot be changed on the whim and fancy of some disgruntled leader.
To cite another example, Pakistan in 1971 did not break up merely because Indira Gandhi sent troops in; rather she sent troops in after Pakistani forces committed genocide, drove 10 million refugees into India, and, most important, attacked India.
There is no such situation in Ukraine or Russia.
There are other potential counter arguments.
It is no one's case that the West behaved irresponsibly in seeking to expand quickly and subsume Ukraine into NATO, over-riding the fears of the Russians.
Unlike India, Russia really has no natural borders -- vast grasslands and open spaces that can be overrun, whether from the West (Napoleon, Hitler) or the East (Genghis Khan, assorted Tartars).
Nations perceived as Russian foes setting up bases in Ukraine, which is just a few hundred kilometres (Kyiv to Moscow is 860 km; by comparison, Mumbai to Delhi is 1,460 km!) is a fear for every Russian leader.
After all, the world does remember the US's dramatic threat to go to war when the Soviet Union placed missiles in Cuba in 1962.
Or closer home, how India did not hesitate to gobble up (the official word is 'merger') when it appeared that the Sikkimese monarchy was veering towards China.
Yet the fact is that these events took place in the 1960s and 1970s, during the height of the Cold War and over a decade after the Sino-Indian conflict.
It was a different era. One can well ask what is the progress made if Russia, no doubt stressed, behaves in typical autocratic form and just invades another country in 2022.
In 1961, India chose the path of non-alignment, not because it was Nehru's preferred ideology but as the best possible way to deal with the Cold War superpower rivals.
Non-alignment as a foreign policy was first spoken of by Lokmanya Tilak, when he assured Britain that an Indian Dominion would not become Tsarist Russia's ally.
Leading up to India's independence, the idea of India not taking sides made sense, and became policy.
Unfortunately it also hurt India, which became amply clear when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979.
India did not condemn the invasion and lost face (as it did earlier when it did not condemn the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956). Non alignment didn't always work.
2022 is not 1961. Sixty-one years later, the world has changed.
India is an emerging power with a potential superpower, nurturing various grievances, real or imagined, on its borders.
The Soviet Union, India's most trusted friend in the 1970s, is no longer around.
In its place is Russia, which worries about its borders on the West and has chosen to grow closer to China, its giant neighbour on the east.
And before we forget, in the 1950s, the Soviet Union and Red China were close allies, till their falling out in 1969 over border issues (no surprises there!).
Given this situation, it would seem Modi can ill afford a policy of neutrality in this new world.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has once more raised the spectre of a new Cold War, with a Sino-Russian alliance on one side with the West on the other.
Unlike 1961, India cannot play non-alignment simply because this time, one of the belligerents is on India's border, and has not been our friend for a long, long time.
Agreed that the West is not a reliable ally, and they have leaned on Pakistan and made India uncomfortable on Kashmir.
But given the growing distrust with China, we need the West.
Nothing personal, just our self-interest.
Modi has the chance to break out of India's passive mode and firmly tell Russia that in this day and age, India will not support unilateral invasions.
Will he do it?
Harishchandra Dighe is a political commentator.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com