Nostalgia is a very powerful emotion. Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to the erstwhile Soviet Union accompanied by his daughter Indira Gandhi for 16 days in June 1955 has long been an enduring part of dog-eared foreign policy scrapbooks.
Russia stood by India in the 1962 war against communist China, in two wars with Pakistan thereafter and refused to join sanctions imposed against New Delhi after it conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998.
It remained a steady supplier of arms to India and helped the country on the path of industrialisation. For many, those days, world literature began, and possibly also ended, with Russian books translated in regional Indian languages.
In 2005, more than a decade after the fall of Soviet Union, the Russian cultural Centre in Thiruvananthapuram had organised a meeting of people with Russian names from Moscow village in the state of Kerala. The village is in the Madapally Taluk of Kottayam district.
Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev and Khrushchev gathered along with Natasha, Tereshkova and Anastasya and there were thirty of them at the meeting.
The BBC website had aptly headlined the meeting as “Stalin and Lenins reunite in India.”
Nostalgia, by its very nature, lingers on. Nearly six decades after Nehru’s visit to Russia and amid many sepia-tinted images of friendships in the intervening period, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met President Vladimir Putin in Brazil in July 2014.
“If you ask anyone among the more than one billion people living in India, who is our country’s best friend, every person, every child knows that it is Russia,” Modi told Putin. It was another triumphant moment for nostalgia. But it also neatly summed up how India values its most trusted veto-empowered friend in the United Nations Security Council.
Modi will be in Russia for the annual India-Russia summit from December 23 to 24. Now it’s time to look hard at the relationship, and not through dewy eyes.
Russia is unique in many ways, and so is the partnership. Those who rattle off trade figures to underline the strength of bilateral ties should not forget Russia, unlike the U.K. in the 19th century or the U.S. in the 20th century, became a superpower on different terms. The Soviet Union was never a global economic power before it became a global superpower, unlike the U.S. or the U.K. The USSR became a global superpower on the strength of its military prowess.
Russia still remains the only challenger to the U.S. as a military power. So, the meagre $9 billion annual trade, though pathetic, should be seen differently. The Centre needs to recast the ties beyond the government-to-government relationship. The prospect of investing in Russia needs to be demystified, and various barriers need to be removed including those linked to language and legal investment protection frameworks.
Japan is the only country other than Russia that India has an annual summit with. The way the public-private partnership on investments is shaping with Japan could be an ideal template to work with in the case of Russia too.
There are new opportunities in the wake of Russia-Turkey ties touching a new low.There are 90,000 Turkish nationals working in Russia; Russia is Turkey’s second largest trading partner and two countries were planning to take bilateral trade to $100 billion in the next eight years. Now, various Turkish investments are being frozen. The Russians are not about to let the first NATO country to down one of its aircraft in the last five decades go scot-free.
Russia, as PM Modi said, can be an important partner in the Make in India flagship scheme in the defence sector. But the two sides need to recognise that India will expand its search for military equipments beyond Russia, and that the way Russia sees India will also change.
Modi can find a great partner in Russian in the global fight against terrorism. For long, the West has been fighting a selective war on terror; and with President Barack Obama in retreat mode on the global stage, Russia has now become the key player.
Clearly, the time has come to realise that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.