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India-Russia ties are stagnating despite potential

India-Russia ties are stagnating. How long can we continue with aimless meandering with no purposive foreign policy agenda when the region is transforming so rapidly? MK Bhadrakumar writes.

india Updated: Oct 27, 2013 21:59 IST
MK Bhadrakumar

The India-Russia summit meetings used to be extraordinary events where the two leaderships often took major decisions that the bureaucracies weren’t audacious enough to take.

Through the past two decades, however, the bureaucrats began asserting themselves. With the recent summit in Moscow, a new phase seems to have begun. Decisions become altogether irrelevant — the summit is on autopilot anyway and is held annually because it is ordained to take place.

The Moscow summit turned out to be a ‘farewell tour’ for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to borrow the expression from the Washington Post.

It is unclear at what stage the Russian sherpas began sensing this, but once they understood, they surely swung into action and ensured that it was indeed a memorable farewell tour, as evident from the personal gifts President Vladimir Putin himself chose to give to the prime minister.

No matter the spin given by Indian officials, the Moscow summit becomes a chronicle of missed opportunity. There were at least three big decisions in the field of energy alone that could have been taken — India acquiring stakes in the Yamal oil fields in Russia’s Arctic region, Kudankulam nuclear power project 3 and 4 and Gazprom’s participation in the TAPI and/or the Iran gas pipeline project.

Russia is raring to diversify its exports from the vast oil and gas fields in Siberia, Far East and Arctic regions to Asian countries. While Manmohan Singh was in Russia, the world media began buzzing that Russian energy companies signed a slew of deals with China — Rosneft to pump another 2,00,000 barrels of crude oil per day to China over a 10-year period starting 2014 (over and above the 9,00,000 bpd it’s already supplying) in a pre-paid deal valued at $85 billion, Novatek securing a long-term contract to supply 3 million tonnes of LNG to China annually.

On the other hand, Delhi has transformed Kudankulam 3 and 4 into a riddle wrapped in a mystery. This Moscow summit was the third successive summit where the two leaderships directed the officials to expeditiously finalise the agreement.

Have our bureaucrats stopped taking their prime minister’s directives seriously? They claim the matter is pending with the Russian lawyers and insist that the draft agreement is all but ready, while the Russian side parries that it is up to New Delhi to decide and set a timeline.

For all practical purposes, with a lame duck government in New Delhi, the signing of the agreement for Kudankulam 3 and 4 has been indefinitely postponed. It was essentially a political call and, interestingly, concerning a non-controversial foreign policy issue in the realm of domestic politics in India even in an election year, since the national consensus on the imperatives of cementing India’s relations with Russia still remains very strong.

But Manmohan Singh chose not to exercise his prerogative of decision-making and has left it to ‘lawyers’ to decide so that there is a ‘level playing field’ for both Atomstroyexport and Westinghouse.

The Indian officials try to cheer us up by eyeing another ‘visionary’ energy project — an overland oil pipeline from Russia to India. One can hear the sound of laughter drifting in from the Central Asian steppes ricocheting in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan.

The India-Russia economic ties are stagnating. Take away the transfer of the high-value weapon systems from the statistics and the bilateral trade at $11 billion shrinks. Which, of course, is an appalling situation, because a much smaller country like Turkey has a trade volume of $35 billion with Russia and is aiming at a target of $100 billion.

Russia is an ambitious power and it has risen like a phoenix out of the ashes of the Soviet Union all within one generation. Its high-level exchanges are purposive events. The sad part is that New Delhi is nowhere near optimally tapping into the profound goodwill that Putin has towards India borne out of his innate belief in the raison d’etre of Russia-India cooperation in the contemporary world situation.

Put differently, Indian foreign policy has been reduced in recent years to an ad-hoc affair, marking time with no ‘big picture’ in view, and like the lotus-eaters in ancient Greek mythology, the establishment is in a state of peaceful apathy.

This came to US President Barack Obama’s notice last month and he didn’t press matters, and now it is Putin’s turn. How long can we continue such aimless meandering with no purposive foreign policy agenda when the region is transforming so rapidly?

The sad reality is that India’s relationship with Russia is at risk of being reduced to the transactions in the Great Indian Arms Bazaar. It is defence cooperation that today gives impetus to the strategic congruence between the two countries — and not the other way around, as it should be.

But then, new vendors of weapons are impatiently knocking at the door and Russia’s pre-eminence faces challenge. The heart of the matter is, a relationship where a steady atrophying of content is happening incrementally gets weakened. Whereas, as the joint statement issued in Moscow testifies, the friendship that Russia offers remains quintessentially the same that Nikita Khrushchev held out 60 years ago — ‘Shout for us across the Himalayas whenever you need us.’

The joint statement underscores that across the board, Russia vociferously backs us in every single issue of vital concern to Indian diplomacy — be it the Taliban and cross-border terrorism or membership of the UN Security Council, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the APEC, the MTCR and Wassenaar Arrangement or the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Russia is even dragging India by the elbow towards the high table at ‘Geneva 2’ when the big powers deliberate on the Syrian question.

MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat
The views expressed by the author are personal