Dealing with an old 'best friend'

  • MK Bhadrakumar
  • Updated: Dec 08, 2014 08:44 IST

The annual summit meetings between the Indian and Russian leaderships no longer electrify the air. The relationship has become entirely predictable and is lacking in the thrill of the 'unknown unknown'.

Many factors come into play here. For one thing, Russia no longer has a 'lobby' in India. The think tankers scurried to greener pastures and the corporate sector prioritises partnerships with the West. There is, of course, no Indian diaspora rooting for Moscow and India-Russia economic ties have struggled to keep up with the growth of the two economies in recent decades. The market is yet to take over trade and investment.

In sum, both India and Russia changed phenomenally during the quarter century since the Cold War ended and the former Soviet Union disappeared - although, paradoxically, the outlook of the two elites bear greater resemblance than before, as they took to globalisation. Russia's perennial quest for habitation in a 'common European home' resumed, while India's desire for proximity with the West no longer risks rebuff.

But looks can be deceptive in the world of diplomacy. The heart of the matter is that Vladimir Putin's visit, which begins on December 11, is taking place at a period of historic transition in Indian politics, which also happens to coincide with a defining moment in regional and world politics. Suffice it to say, the India-Russia relationship is entering a transformative period by sheer force of circumstances and as characteristic of such periods, it is also time for new thinking.

The above templates need some explanation. Curiously, the current Russian and Indian 'regimes' bear striking similarities. Cultural nationalism is the bedrock of the Russian state ideology and Putin unabashedly acknowledges the symbiotic ties between the State and the Orthodox Church. India may not go so far, but the empathy becomes inevitable.

Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are charismatic leaders, assertive in safeguarding the core interests and vital concerns of their countries. Both are intensely conscious of their heritage and visualise a high destiny for their countries in the contemporary world. Both will staunchly resist any prescriptive or intrusive approaches by outside powers on how they should set their house in order. The bottom line is that their countries' 'strategic autonomy' is not open to negotiation even in an interdependent world. Neither India nor Russia has a 'bloc' mentality; and, both place store by their comprehensive national power to buttress their independent foreign policies.

This extraordinary affinity between the two 'regimes' lends great piquancy to the upcoming Modi-Putin summit. When they met in July on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Brazil, Modi displayed a keen awareness of the continued centrality of Russia in India's foreign policy. Putin warmly recalled Modi's visits to Russia. A little-known detail about Modi is that he is also an 'internationalist' in his own way - akin somewhat to that famous Russian by name Peter the Great - who travelled 'around the world in eight dollars', observing, learning and crafting a compass to navigate in an uncertain, volatile world and seized with a messianic zeal to modernise his country. Therefore, Modi's pithy description of Russia to Putin as "India's best friend" was hugely significant.

To be sure, the deep chill in Russia's ties with the West forms the backdrop of Putin's forthcoming visit. India has shown understanding of Russia's legitimate interests in Ukraine. But then, the prevailing international situation also works in India's favour. Putin, being a pragmatist ,understands that the ingenuity of the Indian mind will not miss the infinite possibilities of reinventing and recreating the non-aligned policies.

The challenge facing Indian diplomacy, therefore, is to exploit the present situation to India's advantage. Take the field of energy. The Western sanctions against Russian oil companies and Moscow's defiant 'pivot' to the Asian market open up opportunities for India to invest in upstream projects in Siberia and the Russian Far East. China has come up with innovative methods to seize the emergent situation and Russia offered unprecedented privileges to elicit Chinese companies, including trading oil in yuan. India too needs to do 'out-of-the-box' thinking.

Again, the Russian economy has come under severe pressure to secure new business openings abroad. Traditionally, Russia has been extremely forthcoming in sharing military technology, which is not accessible from any other country. At the same time, Russia is perturbed that its pre-eminence in the Indian market has been eroding. On the other hand, the Modi government is robustly injecting the 'Make in India' policies into the defence industry. Connecting these dots and elevating the Russia-India defence cooperation on to a new trajectory would be in the mutual interests of India and Russia. Decisive political intervention is needed.

Russia remains a constant for India in the firmament of world politics and things have not fundamentally changed since the visit by Nikita Khrushchev 60 years ago. On a range of issues such as terrorism, democratisation of the world order and the Bretton Woods system, or preserving the sanctity of national sovereignty and international law and so on, Russia has been closest to the Indian thinking. A strong, dynamic relationship with Russia enables India to negotiate optimally vis-a-vis other big powers, especially with the US, and to realise its aspirations to be an effective power centre in a multi-polar world.

(MK Bhadrakumar is a former ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey, and was posted in the erstwhile Soviet Union)

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

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