“If I had not come to Russia, life’s pilgrimage would have remained incomplete”, wrote Rabindranath Tagore in Letters from Russia. In the context of modern day India-Russia relations, these sentiments are an abiding testimony to the cultural bonding between India and Russia which, more than six and a half decades later, remain the backbone of their strong strategic partnership.
However, though India and Russia are special and privileged strategic partners, trade and investment relations are weak. Now with momentum building towards an Indo-Russian bilateral high-level summit meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the two countries have an opportunity for course correction.
Putin has signalled areas of convergence between India and Russia which should serve as the template for building cooperation: first, the common stakes in the rise of a multi-polar world structure; second, the fight against religious extremism and terrorism; third, economic cooperation in areas including in defence and energy; and fourth, common stakes in shaping regional and international affairs.
For India, relations with Russia remain the most decisive and strategic of partnerships, and India views Russia as pivotal in its foreign policy calculus, given India’s stakes in the region with regard to energy security, expansion of trade and commercial prospects.
Russia, as the leading force behind the increasingly integrating Eurasian economic space, is crucial to India’s plans to include Kazakhstan and Belarus in a proposed economic pact with Russia that would provide India access to a wider market in the region.
Bilateral trade has struggled to cross the $10 billion mark with the two-way exchange of goods in 2012 touching the $7 billion mark. Russia’s decision to lift the ban on import of rice, rice cereals and peanuts from India has no doubt come in timely to boost exports.
Exports in pharmaceuticals can benefit Russia in terms of quality and cost-effectiveness of the generic medicines.
Indian pharmaceutical companies have woken up to engage themselves with Russian partners under Russia’s Pharma-2020 programme. This is a welcome development. The diamond industry offers scope for economic cooperation to move to a new pitch.
Investment is another area that is not in sync with the quality of India-Russia ties. India and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding to promote direct investment which envisages investments up to $2 billion in bilateral projects or companies, privatisation and other opportunities, but there is little to show on the ground.
For Russians there are immense investment avenues available in India which they would do well to explore as in the upcoming industrial townships under the National Manufacturing Policy. India has invited Russian investment in the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) project, a corridor of opportunities for foreign investors.
The other vital area that calls for exploration is IT and ITeS. India has sought details from Russians on their IT innovation policy.
There is enough fire in the current relationship between India and Russia to reignite the magic of the past. What is needed is the urge on both sides to navigate the challenges. As the cliché goes, when there is a will, there is a way!
Sidharth Birla is senior vice-president and president designate of FICCI
The views expressed by the author are personal