An order of mutual trust

On the third table from my seat, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin, the power centre of a new world order that refused to accept a unipolar system, was passionately in discussion with Indian ex-Prime Minister Vajpayee. I was the 13th editor of the newspaper where he began his public life; maybe that gave me the strength to breach protocol and head over to Putin's table to take his autograph on the Kremlin banquet's fabulously decorated menu card. It was November 7, 2001. A surprised smile appeared on Putin's face and his signature was in my hands, as the magnificence of the Alexadria Hall, with its lustrous gold-plated walls, reverberated with to the sounds of Tchaikovsky - The Nutcracker and Swan Lake - and Raj Kapoor's Mera Joota Hai Japani.

Putin had won the hearts of every Hindustani. On that count, 2009 is no different from 2001. His speech to the joint session of the Indian parliament, his arrival as the chief guest on Republic Day, his emphasis on strengthening the strategic partnership and practical help in times of need, have had only one result - the people of both countries trust each other in a way incomparable to any other two countries on this planet.

Trust is the word that suitably defi nes India-Russian relations. The rest is simply embroidery.

From atomic energy co-operation to steel manufacturing and lending the timeliest helping hand during the critical Bangladesh war, Russians have always been on our side. The thunderous applause Putin received at the Indian parliament when he spoke on Kashmir, saying the elements creating problems in J&K were the very same behind Chechnya's troubles, bears testimony to the Indian mood towards Russian stances on our most important issues.

You can quote a thousand pages of statistics to reinforce the solid foundation of bilateral relations, or create spokes of statistical jugglery to prove how bad it had been, as inspired analysts would often do - especially when India paid back all its debts in Rupee-Rouble exchange rates, disapproving suggestions of dishonouring the faltering Rouble, inviting a huge loss but maintaining good relations which have proved much dearer than the dollar regime. Nothing could shake the undiluted faith in Russian friendship, the best of which we saw during Indira Gandhi's regime before Vajpayee. While all of the friends of the Soviet Union have been ditched, it was India alone that stood fi rmly with Russian colours. Never had they discussed the cost. When India was left alone by the superpowers engaged in cold war, it was Russia standing like a rock and weathering Western pressures to help India. It's not just the meeting of strategic interests, it's the cultural and civilisational warmth that keeps the heat of cosiness intact, stretching far beyond the formalities of Moscow and Delhi. Both are multi-ethnic and deeply religious societies. A friend of mine recently married a Russian girl; the guests from Moscow felt similarities in Hindu rituals and the significance of family ties, especially respect for elders and ceremonies involving age old customs.

To increase bilateral trade to US$10bn and take it to $8bn by 2015, as Putin hoped, is not a tall order even in the present recession, as trade has been lowkey compared to others like the US and China. The only element needed is to increase the mutual interest between Indian and Russian corporate giants and start dealing with regions and states directly. Thus, Russian joint ventures should deal with Indian states and Indian industrial leaders will be able to reach out to the 89 Russian regions.

While India is fruitfully engaged in the democratic axis involving the US and Japan, and has fi nally found a place in the Shanghai Club, it would be worthwhile to forge a strategic partnership involving China as well as the Russians. An India-Russia-China axis will go a long way to help peace and tranquility in the region, especially in combating the menaces of terrorism and separatism. It will also help douse the suspicions of Chinese establishment regarding growing Indo-Russian bilateral co-operation, which genuinely is not targeted against any nation.

The best hope is that India continues to nurture continuity in its policy towards Russia. In the current external affairs minister, Pranab Mukarjee, we have a seasoned and mature statesman capable of deftly steering the ship of bilateral relations.

Tarun Vijay is Director of the Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation.

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