A forward-looking history

In mid-April we shall mark the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the USSR and India. It is appropriate to identify the basic historical stages of these relations: 1) strategic alliance (the second half of the 1950s through the first half of the 1980s); 2) gradual geopolitical separation (the second half of the 1980s through the late 1990s); 3) strategic partnership (since the beginning of the 21st century).

Soviet-Indian relations began to be shaped as a strategic alliance before, and especially after, the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962. The USSR, which was already engaged in an ideological showdown with the PRC, responded promptly to India’s military-technical needs at a time when nations in the West preferred to refrain from supporting India in the national security area. By providing military-technical assistance, the USSR in a sense compensated India for the cultural and psychological trauma inflicted by the “Chinese aggression” (as many Indians called the border conflict at the time). Given the geopolitical weight of both India and the USSR, it may be said that their relations gradually attained global significance. In the 1960s and 1970s, our relations had all the basic features of strategic cooperation: identical or close positions on the fundamental issues in world affairs, tight coordination of activity within international organizations and at multilateral fora, advanced cooperation between Soviet and Indian government institutions, and trust between the two countries’ leaders. In the overall strategy of Soviet foreign policy, India functioned in practice as an effective counterweight to China, especially as the American-Chinese rapprochement started to gain momentum. India’s tacit support for Soviet policy in Afghanistan was also effective, in its own way.

After the tragic demise of Indira Gandhi in 1984, the country’s new leadership, headed by her son Rajiv, cautiously began to diversify Indian foreign policy (including the development of relations with the USA and China), which did not, however, affect the level or quality of Soviet-Indian relations.

Unfavorable changes in our relations came somewhat later, at the end of the 1980s. As is well known, the second half of the 1980s brought to light systemic shortcomings in the Soviet economic system, which adversely affected the possibility of achieving the USSR’s foreign policy goals. These flaws had a destructive impact on Soviet-Indian relations. On the one hand, the respective heads of state and government affirmed their resolve to develop bilateral relations creatively and give them new geoeconomic and geopolitical content. On the other, these relations essentially stagnated, accurately reflecting the increasing inability of the Soviet state in its last years of existence to promote or diversify bilateral foreign economic ties.

After the dismemberment of the USSR, Russia’s de facto “exit” from India (which had geopolitical and foreign economic policy dimensions, as well as cultural and ideological ones) shaped a negative stereotype of our country in the minds of various social and political forces within Indian society. At the same time, the divergent trajectories of the economic policy changes in our countries noticeably narrowed the horizon of bilateral foreign economic ties, limiting them to military-technical cooperation and collaboration in the nuclear power industry.

Russian-Indian relations also acquired a peculiar “Chinese subtext.” It is a generally known fact that concern about China’s geopolitical intentions has been and remains a part of the historical memory and political consciousness of Indian society. Deprived of effective Russian support, India in the 1990s began to look for a counterweight to the PRC’s growing influence in world affairs, and received a positive response from Bill Clinton’s U.S. administration. It goes without saying that Russia, during those years, practically disappeared from the media and from political and other public discourse in India.

As the 21st century opened, the Russian government reintroduced the idea of a “comeback” to Asia. It must be said, however, that researchers and experts close to the Indian government believe that this new trend in Russian foreign policy has not been conceptually and strategically elaborated, but is primarily a spontaneous reaction to the shift of the geo-economic axis of the world eastward, i.e., into the Asia-Pacific Region (APR).

The changes in Indian foreign policy over the past two decades, including ones influenced by the successful economic reforms of the 1990s, so far have presented obstacles to any close coordination of our countries’ actions on the world scene (as demonstrated, unfortunately, by the “Syrian crisis”).

Meanwhile the age-old rivals, India and China, are trying to overcome the past by means of stepped-up trade and other economic cooperation. According to what their leaders have said, these rapidly developing economic ties should ultimately transform the political background of their bilateral relations, as well.

What are the factors affecting the current state of our bilateral relations?

In developing a “strategic partnership” with Russia, India’s ruling circles (or, to be more precise, influential groups within them) proceed on the basis of Delhi’s already established notion that Russia has shifted into the “second league” of world politics. In the foreign policy coordinate system that has taken shape, Russia is seen as a regional power with limited influence on the course of world developments.

The new generation of the Indian political elite has developed a negative image of Russia; the new elite clearly disapproved of the self-liquidation of the “Soviet superpower” and the behavior of the Russian authorities in the 1990s, and now they are dubious about Russia’s ability to regain the status of a significant “gravitational field” in world politics.

There are primarily two world trends influencing the outlook of the Indian political class as we enter the third millennium. The first is the retention by the United States, so far, of economic and military-technical superiority over the rest of the world. Secondly, there is China’s headlong rise, with the transformation of the Celestial Kingdom into a new world power. At the same time, the Indian diaspora in the United States (currently numbering over 3 million people, with its own “GDP,” so to speak, in excess of $600 billion, according to some estimates) is beginning to play an active role in domestic and foreign policy. This “extraterritorial” grouping is already beginning to have a visible influence on major foreign policy decisions: the overall reorientation of India’s foreign economic strategy toward the USA; the signing of the Indian-American “nuclear agreement” (which, in the view of critics on both the right and the left, compromises the country’s political sovereignty); the shift of the vector of military-technical cooperation toward the USA; and moves toward a strategic alliance with the United States in “containing the expansion” of China in the APR (the “alliance of four democracies” – the USA, Japan, Australia, and India).

At the same time, it is evident that India’s foreign policy position needs to be reinforced. It still has unsettled relations with its neighbors in South Asia, countries with which China is actively developing bilateral ties. Furthermore the PRC is trying to neutralize potentially anti-Chinese forces among the Indian regional elites, in particular through its planned massive investment in the state economy of Gujarat. Under current conditions India is faced with the necessity of restoring its relations with Russia in one way or another, as a potential “balance” to China, as well as a force capable of acting in India’s interests in South Asia.

By the logic of things, closer cooperation among the BRICS members could help lessen India’s concern about Chinese geopolitical intentions. Experts note, however, that the Russian political elite currently lacks any unified strategic vision of the role of the BRICS countries in the future world order. It has to be recognized that our country’s current difficult situation within the BRICS has resulted largely from the fact that a part of the Russian elite ignored India’s initiatives during the 1990s, in particular the concept of a geopolitical “triangle” of Russia, India, and China.

Another important factor is the political economy. Unfortunately, despite efforts by the leaders of both countries, bilateral trade remains insignificant at around $10 billion. It cannot begin to be compared with India’s trade in goods, services, and know-how with the USA and China. It would appear that the Indian business community wants to prioritize the development of Indian-American and Indian-Chinese ties, while Russian-Indian trade and economic relations are proceeding as if by inertia, like some kind of tribute being paid to the history of Soviet-Indian relations.

The intellectual and cultural potential of cooperation between the two countries was initially a significant resource for the development of our relations with India. At the present time, however, the intellectual, cultural, and ideological basis of our bilateral relations has been destroyed to a significant extent. An obvious example is the lackluster reaction of the population to the Year of Russia in India and the Year of India in Russia.

Despite ringing statements about “strategic partnership,” experts continue to feel that Russian-Indian relations have a certain “incomplete” quality, lacking the firmness with which they developed in the 1970s and early 1980s.

How can the situation be changed?

In our era of universal pragmatism, the level of trust between nations is directly determined by their economic cooperation. World practice indicates that trade must reach at least $17-18 billion, because socioeconomic forces interested in bilateral cooperation take shape at precisely that boundary level of foreign economic ties.

What is preventing its achievement in Russian-Indian relations? There are various explanations. According to the “broad” interpretation, the economic reforms carried out in India and Russia in the early 1990s went on divergent trajectories, as mentioned above, and therefore there is no demand in the Indian economy for Russian products other than raw materials. According to the “narrow” version, the quality of Russian goods fell sharply in the wake of the collapse of the USSR, particularly affecting military-technical cooperation between the two countries. These are obviously complementary explanations.

The Indian press often writes about the breakdown of regularity in the delivery of products from Russia and the high-profile role of private companies in the military-technical business (the failed deal with Algeria for the sale of MiG-29 fighters, for example), which is diametrically opposite to the worldwide practice of strict government control over this sensitive area of foreign economic activity.

There is an evident need for proactive, targeted measures in bilateral relations with India, above all in areas where Russia retains some competitive advantages, i.e., the nuclear power industry, cooperation in space exploration, machine-building for the power industry, and the development of sophisticated and even futuristic types of weaponry. This type of cooperation could make more than a token contribution to improving Russia’s competitiveness as a significant world economic player. We should propose pilot projects to the Indian side in such clusters of industry and scientific work as pharmaceuticals, the civilian aircraft industry, agricultural science, and agriculture-related industries. India has a long-standing interest in Russia’s achievements in new materials development, especially now that successful economic reforms make it possible to use them in sectors of the economy undergoing modernization, including ground and air transport systems. In addition, India is prepared to take part in commercializing certain technological inventions made in our natural, exact, and technical sciences. Finally, it would appear expedient to “reinstitutionalize” contacts between social scientists in the two countries (in areas of mutual interest), especially insofar as the social sciences in India are among the most advanced in the world.

The definition of India’s place within the Russian system of foreign policy priorities also requires proper clarification. New geopolitical realities have formed after the disintegration of the bipolar world. Russia’s foreign policy response to new challenges includes the strengthening of strategic relations with such large nations as China and Brazil, the restoration of vitally important partnerships with “new regional leaders” like Turkey and Iran, and the upgrading of the Latin American vector in Russian foreign policy. Russia’s relations with the Republic of Korea (which, like India, was recently added to the group of “privileged partners” of the RF) promise to become organically connected with the comprehensive modernization of Siberia and the Far East; they also have a direct link with our country’s military and political security.

The Russian leadership should assume that in the new, polycentric organization of the world, India remains a key foreign policy partner of Russia, and objectively retains its importance as a potentially large market for our industry – a kind of external resource for our internal modernization.

In past times our relations were often powerfully spurred ahead by large-scale, long-term bilateral projects. This is all the more the case, in that Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh constantly underscores that “economics is the main politics.” I came away from recent meetings with the Indian intellectual and political elite with an impression that Central Asia could become an area for the application of our joint efforts, and that the strategic goal of such cooperation would be peace and development for the peoples of this region, which is of vital importance to us both. I think that in the process of such cooperation our strategic interests in Central Asia will become clearer, and we shall reach a better understanding of the logic of India’s behavior with regard to the Great Silk Road.

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