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Mainstream, Vol. XLIX No 6 , January 29, 2011

India-Russia Ties in the Neoliberal Era

Monday 31 January 2011, by M K Bhadrakumar


If last month’s official visit by President Dmitry Medvedev to India came anywhere near being marred, it was from a most unexpected quarter —onions. Indians can’t make curries without onions but now 80 per cent of them can’t afford this vegetable. They were contemplating how to substitute onions with finely chopped leaks when Medvedev arrived.

Yet, the visit became a page-turner and the youthful President calmed the eye on our tired, jaded political landscape. The visit was “bound to be successful, in theory”, as an experienced Russian scholar coyly predicted. Not only was the annual summit meticulously choreographed, but there is also a growing “bipartisan” interest in India in the relationship. The Right-wing lobbies weaned on old-fashioned “anti-communism” that mocked at Soviet-Indian friendship, the Left which nostalgically (and simplistically) views Russia as the inheritor of Soviet legacies and the government with a pronounced “pro-American” tilt—all agree that India should have a privileged bond with Russia. No mean thing in our highly fragmented polity.

Only the common people and intellectuals— who used to constitute the vanguard of Soviet-Indian friendship—are missing from the spectacle. Ironically, 2010 was also the 55th anniversary of the historic visit by Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin to India but no one remembered. To be sure, the distinctive mark of summit 2010 in Delhi is that the “market forces” have penetrated the veins and arteries and even the capillaries of the two countries’ relationship. Such things are probably part and parcel of our current neo-liberal era. But is that a good thing to happen? A reverse osmosis is happening in the Sino-Indian partnership. For China, public diplomacy in India has assumed great significance. Anyway, both Russia and India seem content with the way things turned out and are settling for a durable “strategic partnership” based on “conver-gence of interests”, uncluttered by ideals or ideology. There is, of course, no question of infidelity in such a partnership and no scope for adulterous acts—not even flirtatious intimacies. An extraordinary calmness has come to prevail, which is truly rare in relationships.

Medvedev’s visit can be considered “historic” —the true commencement, arguably, of the post-Cold War era of Russian-Indian “strategic partnership”. The ties have been salvaged from the seemingly hopeless shipwreck of the 1990s and retrieved from the long night of India’s “unipolar predicament” (leading to the signing of the US-India nuclear deal in 2008) and, lately, fresh content has begun to be injected into it so that the partnership could acquire the raison d’etre. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the success of this enterprise when he said Russia had become a “special and privileged” partner with which India would pursue a relationship independent of its ties with other countries. By “other countries”, he probably meant the US and China. Shorn of diplomatese, New Delhi would nonchalantly accelerate its strategic ties with Washington which, as India understands, is bent on “containing” China, while Sino-Russian ties are deepening and expanding and the two countries increasingly coordinate their stance on regional and international issues, as the latest instance over North Korea amply testifies. New Delhi expects Moscow not to get flustered by the cut and thrust of US-India ties, which by far outstrip Russia’s reset with the US and are of a qualitatively different character.

India would give primacy to bilateral issues in the partnership with Russia. Wherever there is convergence on regional and international issues, that is fine. And if there is any divergence, that’s only natural and the two countries learn to live with it. The Joint Statement, issued after Medvedev’s visit, reflects this new thinking. It underscores that India and Russia can still have a “strong convergence of their views on regional and international issues of importance to the security of both countries”. But then, that’s blasé. Russia’s Joint Statement with China following the summit in Beijing in late September 2010 pledged the two countries to promote a “new security concept” on the basis of mutual trust, mutual benefits, equality and cooperation.

The Sino-Russian statement promised mutual support for each other’s core interests. The Russian-Indian statement remains silent on the Indian stance on, say, Russian interests in the Caucasus or the Russian stance on India’s differences with Pakistan.

With regard to the Afghan problem, while there is similarity in the Indian and Russian assessments, the two sides offer nothing in terms of a joint initiative. India faces regional isolation while Russia has an active regional policy with regard to the Afghan problem that even provides for cooperation with Pakistan. India appears to have serious reservations about the US’ AfPak strategy and yet seems adamant on working principally with the US. The Joint Statement is silent on what sort of Afghanistan the two countries seek. Shouldn’t it be a “neutral” Afghanistan free of long-term foreign military presence? The two countries must be seized of the looming prospect of a long-term NATO military presence in the region as a crucial vector of the alliance’s determination to become a global security organisation that can intervene in “hot spots”. In political terms, the balance- sheet of the summit favoured India. The Indian sherpas negotiated hard and the Russians were generous—support for India’s bid for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other technology control regimes, SCO and APEC. The Indian commentators may have over-interpreted the Joint Statement’s portions on terrorism as constituting Russian criticism of Pakistan, but India can derive satisfaction that Russia joined it in calling upon Pakistan “to expeditiously bring all the perpetrators, authors and accomplices of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks to justice”. In return, New Delhi expressed solidarity with Moscow’s “efforts to eliminate terrorism from Russian soil”.

HOWEVER, the leitmotif of Medvedev’s visit was the substantive engagement of the two countries at the bilateral level. Much hope is placed on the recovery of bilateral trade from the stagnation that persisted till two-three years ago. The target of $ 20 billion by 2015 seems reachable, spearheaded by military-technical cooperation and nuclear commerce. India is taking a focussed approach to the relationship. Put simply, Russia is willing to offer India high technology that the West is not yet ready to give. As a Delhi newspaper commented thoughtfully, “Russian technology may not be as good as that of some countries of the West, but at least it is available.”

During his November visit, President Barack Obama promised to lift the remaining American restrictions on the flow of “dual-use” technology to India. No sooner did Medvedev leave than senior US officials began calling their Indian counterparts to say they would like to follow up on Obama’s assurances. The US has great motivation to catch up with the Russian approach of going beyond a buyer-seller relationship and to enter into defence-industrial cooperation so as to optimally tap into India’s whopping defence-modernisation budget of $ 80 billion through 2022. However, it is unlikely that the US will be able to match Russia in such areas as the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft, access to GLONASS, space-launch vehicle engines or nuclear-propelled submarines.

All the same, the business part of Russian-Indian partnership is already characterised by hard negotiations. The two sides failed to sign agreements on Russia constructing two more nuclear power plants in India. Russia has sought a clarification on India’s nuclear liability law.

There were no big energy deals, either. Russia is entering the Chinese market, while India teams up with the US-sponsored TAPI (Turk-menistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipe-line project despite its “anti-Russia” orientation.

The romance of friendship had a soothing effect on the rough edges of Soviet-Indian relationship, which is absent today. The danger of today’s dealings accruing over the fullness of time as a transactional relationship exists. There is no point ignoring the camel in the Russian-Indian tent—China. The Russian foreign policy is balancing between China and India, whereas India seems to take its rivalry with China very seriously and boastfully and is yet to comprehend that its role as a counterweight to China is gradually diminishing. Russia understands that China’s domestic problems are gigantic and it will have to devote most of its efforts to cope with them. Also, Russia has direct stakes in the Asia-Pacific region—unification of Korea, for example, is in Russia’s strategic interests. But China’s rise colours India’s Asia-Pacific sights.

However, the fundamental dichotomy lies elsewhere. The heart of the matter is that India figures in Russia’s geopolitical schemes as part and parcel of RIC (Russia-India-China), BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) and SCO for the obvious reason that Moscow regards these emerging entities as the ultimate driving force for revitalising the world economy on a long-term basis. While this point seems to register well with Brazil and China, India is hesitant to take a strategic decision.

(Courtesy: The Hindu)

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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