Drawing by Andrey Popov
The relations between India and Russia, despite occasional tumultuous phases in past, can be aptly characterised as “continuity in the midst of change.” Broadly, the relations of India and Russia can be divided into three phases: Soviet phase; disintegration phase and initial years; and post-Soviet phase after Boris Yeltsin. Specifically, the post-Soviet phase can be classified into three sub-categories: initial phases of turmoil; the compulsions of the Yeltsin period; and the resurgence of relations after 2000 when Putin took charge.
Even prior to the emergence of the Soviet Union, the legendary letter exchanges between Gandhi and Tolstoy, the great forays of Nicholas Roerich and later his son Svetoslav Roerich, who married an Indian actress Devika Rani and settled in India, the close links of some of Indian freedom fighters with Soviet leaders, the great Indian revolutionary M. N. Roy’s links with the Soviet leadership, particularly Lenin, are some of the cherished moments in the annals of the India-Russia relations.
In the first two decades after independence, India’s growth story depended a great deal on Soviet aid and assistance particularly in heavy industries and defence sector. At the height of the cold war, when South Asia was propelled to be a crucible in geopolitical rivalry, the Soviet Union played the Good Samaritan to keep India on the winning side. Whether it was wars with Pakistan, or the liberation of Bangladesh, or sending its naval fleet to counter the seventh fleet of the US in the Bay of Bengal, or vetoing the United Nations Security Council resolutions on Kashmir in favour of India, India-Russia ties have withstood the test of time. Starting with the historic visit of Khrushchev and Bulganin to India in 1955 with the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace in 1971 and the bilateral ventures later, the relations remained sturdy in the Soviet period.
Culturally, the people of India and Russia bonded easily. Thousands of Indian students flocked to the Soviet Union. Indian cinema legends like Raj Kapoor were household names in the Soviet Union and the all-time hit song "Mein Awara Hoon" still evokes nostalgia.
The collapse of the Soviet Union plunged the relations into uncertainty, and led to what is called a lost decade. Whether it was the Cryogenic deal controversy, or differences over rupee-rouble exchange rate, or shifting priorities of both the countries, the relations were at the lowest ebb in this period. The visit of Russian President Boris Yeltsin to India in 1993 could be termed a turning point in the India-Russia relations. Yeltsin was in the process of giving up ‘pro-Atlantic’ policy in favour of ‘Eurasianist policy’, with focus on ‘near abroad’ and traditional partners like India. Such a policy was well articulated by prominent Eurasianist Yevgeny Primakov, later vigorously pursued by Vladimir Putin, who after taking charge in 2000 robustly articulated his vision of India-Russia relations: first, the common stakes in the rise of a multipolar world structure; second, the fight against religious extremism and terrorism; third, economic cooperation in defence and energy sector; and fourth, common stakes in shaping regional and international affairs.
This was reflected in many joint agreements and declarations, including inter-governmental cooperation on science and technology; annual summit of heads of states; joint working groups on terrorism, and on Afghanistan; Moscow Declaration on terrorism; and joint deals on arms sector to develop missiles such as BrahMos.
Medvedev followed the line developed by Putin. From the late 1990s onwards, Russia began re-emerging as a global power with its economy bolstered by energy dollars and its assertiveness in foreign policy. The platforms such as Russia-India-China(RIC), Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS), and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) promote the vision of a new world order in which both the countries can play effective roles.
Perhaps the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations provides an opportunity to flesh out some occasional differences. Some areas of contention include: the procrastination at operationalisation of nuclear reactors in Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the cancellation of license of Sistema Shyam TeleServices Ltd. (SSTL), along with other 122 companies, by Indian Supreme Court and easing of the visa regime. While in the case of nuclear plants, it is a mixture of domestic politics and international politics that delayed the operation of phase-1 and phase-II, in case of SSTL, it is the Indian law that is involved. However, the work on both nuclear sites has already resumed, after the Tamil Nadu government allowed resumption of work on March 19, 2012. Regarding SSTL, Prime Minister Singh has assured Russian President Medvedev on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in New Delhi on March 29 that the issue will be sorted out soon. Currently both the countries are exploring plans to develop hypersonic cruise missile. Another strong area of cooperation is the area of energy. In June 2012, Russia’s Gazprom Global LNG signed a pact to supply upto 10 billion cubic metres of LNG to Gas Authority of India Ltd., Gujarat State Petroleum Company and Petronet over 25 years. Similarly, both countries have made visa rules flexible. In fact, India and Russia have myriad areas to explore by coming out of the ‘rupee-reactor syndrome’, which puts more emphasis on defence relations. It is time to diversify the relations.
At 65, the India-Russia partnership is young enough to steer ahead of past compulsions and constraints, and acquire an all-encompassing character. Going beyond the usual glamour and celebrations, the new presidency of Putin and the UPA-II government under Manmohan Singh is set to witness some historic milestones.
Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is part of the research faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India.
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