Wanted: An Ambassador to Russia

Putin’s visit laid bare that India-Russia relationship today is largely about defence cooperation. Source: Flickr / galleryquantum

Putin’s visit laid bare that India-Russia relationship today is largely about defence cooperation. Source: Flickr / galleryquantum

It is when we come to the traditionally strongest vector of independent India’s foreign policy that a dismal picture emerges – the partnership with Russia.

A tripod becomes unstable if one leg gives way. India’s foreign policy can be compared to a tripod. In the contemporary world situation, the optimal way of taking advantage of the co-relation of forces (which no doubt work to India’s advantage) demands three strong interlocking vectors – its respective partnerships with the United States, China and Russia.

2012 has been a good year for the “defining partnership of the 21st century” between India and the US. Call it maturing, but much realism entered into it, and the Indian side successfully waded through syrupy rhetoric and discerned what is useful and what is not. The desire not to be an Asia-Pacific “lynchpin” was a telling example.

2012 has been a truly transformative year for India-China relations and historians will look back to estimate that the discourse changed. The Indian diplomacy has been at its creative best for a long time. The policymaker worked diligently despite the dispiriting polarisation and upheaval in the country’s domestic politics.

But, alas, it is when we come to the traditionally strongest vector of independent India’s foreign policy that a dismal picture emerges – the partnership with Russia. Things became so uncertain that like insects afraid of sunlight, Indian officials dispensed with the customary media briefing as a build-up to President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Delhi.

They wouldn’t risk a joint press conference with Putin. Yet, the prying eyes of the media – Indian and western media – could penetrate the aura of unreality masking the steady atrophy of the India-Russia relationship.

Putin came as the day dawned and left for home as dusk fell. There is no more any romance – like when Barack Obama and Michelle waltzed through Mumbai or Hillary Clinton’s had her town-hall jigs in Chennai or Kolkata.

Arguably, statesmen are also human beings and when Putin with his legendary passion for India went back after such a bare “working visit”, one wonders what were the thoughts that razed through his mind. The western media gleefully put him down as an arms merchant who came to Delhi to sell weapons to the Indians and went back with contracts worth $3 billion tucked away in his brief case.

True, the western media never really liked Putin, but in this case they had a point. Putin’s visit laid bare that India-Russia relationship today is largely about defence cooperation. India wants to modernise its military and has ambitions to develop a world-class armament industry (like China’s), but cannot get the technology from anywhere else than Russia. Despite the nuclear deal with the US, the gates of western technology warehouse remains shut and India’s admission to the technology control regimes remains a distant dream. Meanwhile, it is only Russia, which will hand over a nuclear submarine or jointly develop a “hypersonic” missile.

Aside defence cooperation, India-Russia ship is running aground having hit two atolls – Kudankulam and Sistema. Quintessentially, the US has finally managed to become the “sleeping partner” in India-Russia nuclear cooperation. The Americans sought a “level playing field”, which meant no Kudankulam 3 and 4 until and unless a way out could be found for the US as well to sell reactors to India.

Kudankulam 3 and 4 may have to wait till a “Swadeshi” coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party replaces the present leadership in Delhi. But it is the Sistema dispute that raises awkward questions. The Russian company invested in India at the invitation of the UPA government. It is a big investment of $3.1 billion. But the goal post has since been shifted in India and Sistema has been left in the lurch. The UPA pleads helplessness, although it should have pleaded before the Supreme Court for a special dispensation for Sistema since the foreign investor is not mixed up with 2G scam. Besides, it is a case of foreign direct investment.

Doesn’t the government intervene in special circumstances with the judiciary? Of course, it does. Ironically, on the eve of Putin’s visit, the government did intervene to let go the two Italian sailors who were under trial in Kochi on murder charges so that as good Roman Catholics, they could enjoy Christmas at home. (Frankly, they may not even return to Kochi and the far-right parties in Italy propose to field them as candidates in the upcoming parliamentary election to show the thumb at India.)

Be that as it may, UPA government is preaching to the Russians the mystique of the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary in India. Unsurprisingly, Russians aren’t impressed. In the kind of crony capitalism prevailing in India, a similar affected Indian business house would compromise with the ruling party and strike a Faustian deal to secure a honey pot somewhere else so that nothing is eventually lost when the balance sheet is drawn, and the gravy train rolls on.

But a foreign investor can’t be expected to subscribe to our political culture. Suffice to say, Sistema is stuck in the Indian-Russian throat. India can’t – and Russia won’t – spit it out. And neither can pretend that life is normal so long as this lump remains stuck in the throat just where the larynx separates things from the oesophagus. There is a real danger of asphyxiation.   

The missing link

Russia, like any ambitious power, is a serious practitioner of globalization. Its trade with China touches $100 billion, with European Union $490 billion. The IMF data puts its foreign currency reserves as of November at $528 billion. Something like 20000 companies from the EU have Russian subsidiaries, about 6000 of them from Germany alone. Around 80 percent of the EU’s foreign investment goes to Russia.

Surely, India can have a much bigger trade volume than the abysmally low $10 billion annually when Turkey can pile up a flourishing Russia trade of $35 billion. Why is the Turkish analogy important? First, Turkey was Russia’s cold war adversary and came from behind India to storm past it as Russia’s economic partner. Second, it says something about national priorities. Russia and Turkey enjoy none of the profound trust and mutual understanding that characterises Russia-India relations. Turkey is Russia’s strategic adversary-cum-rival in a number of situations in regional politics. Yet, the stress is on cool pragmatism, which downplays political rifts and strategic discords and instead focuses on trade partnership and energy cooperation.

The missing link in the India-Russia relations is economic content. Paradoxically, with or without each other’s help, the two countries are capable of pursuing a robustly independent foreign policy in today’s multi-polar world. Each is also perfectly capable of pursuing its core interests on the global arena. The progression toward a democratised world order that accommodates the emerging powers is an inexorable process and is not predicated on India and Russia working shoulder to shoulder.

However, at the end of the day, a relationship such as India and Russia’s would have a dim future if it were not built on the bedrock of a vibrant economic partnership. The two countries would drift apart unknowingly. Sadly, this is already happening.

It is sad because the relationship with Russia serves a crucial purpose for India in balancing – energizing, stimulating, complementing, substituting, supplementing  – its partnership with the US and China. Simply put, without a strong pivotal relationship with Russia, Indian diplomacy becomes poorer, suboptimal.

A course correction is urgently needed to arrest and reverse the free fall of the Indian-Russian relationship through the past decade. It should begin with a directive from External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid to insert a full-page advertisement in the Economic Times, seeking applications from our corporate business and industry for the posts of India’s ambassador to Russia and for the head of Eurasia desk in South Block. Such government posts need to be made contract jobs – as the Australians often do.

Hire competent hands and entrust a set target to boost the economic ties within a set 3-year timeline. No lame excuses for patchy performance should be entertained. The booming trade figures and the rising graph of Russian investment in India should be the sole criterion of performance. It hardly matters whether someone is a diplomat or can speak broken Russian – so long as he can comprehend the country’s national priorities of development.

 (The writer is a former ambassador).

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