Narendra Modi, the BJP’s strongest prime ministerial candidate for the next general elections. Source: Bloomberg
The straws in the wind are indicating a more pro-active engagement between Russia and India’s principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Narendra Modi, the BJP’s strongest prime ministerial candidate for the next general elections (due in May 2014), has already emerged as the pivotal figure in the Russia-BJP engagement.
The Russians sense that the BJP may well wrest power in the next elections from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), a Congress-led coalition in power since 2004. So don’t be surprised if Russian diplomats start courting the BJP rather pro-actively in the weeks and months to come. The politico-diplomatic grapevine in the Indian capital has it that the Russians would soon be stepping up their engagement with the BJP top brass in an incremental manner.
No Zero-Sum Game
However, it is not as if that Russia has some special love for the BJP or vice versa. It is true that the Indo-Russian traditionally close ties were put back on the rails during the government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee when President Vladimir Putin made a landmark visit to Delhi in October 2000. But it is also true that the Vajpayee regime supported the American missile defence initiative, leaving the Russians shocked and stunned.
The primary goal of foreign policy for any nation is its perceived national interests. Russia’s strategic interests in India and India’s strategic interests in Russia are so deep and so mature that they are not predicated on which particular political party or dispensation is at the helm of affairs in India.
In Modi’s direction
There are indicators which should not be ignored and which suggest a slow and steady synergy between Russia and Modi.
The recently concluded Vibrant Gujarat Summit witnessed participation by four Russian regions -- Moscow, St Petersburg, Astrakhan and Yaroslavl. Director of the Department for Economic Development of the Yaroslavl Region, Alexander Shutov, went on record as saying that Indian entrepreneurs are considering setting up companies in the Yaroslavl Region to process milk and produce car parts and sports equipment.
Indian companies are looking at various options for the implementation of projects in Russia: they can either set up companies with 100 percent Indian capital or invest in joint ventures. They can also have manufacturing contracts with other companies that operate production sites in the region.
In January 2013, the vice-governor of the Astrakhan Region, Konstantin Markelov, during his participation at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit, wished Narendra Modi the best for “India’s general elections next year.”
Gujarat and Astrakhan signed a memorandum of understanding of co-operation in 2001. There have been regular delegation-level visits between the areas since then, with Modi visiting Astrakhan in 2006. The two provinces look to sign a MoU between Gazprom and Gujarat State Petroleum Corp.
Moscow-based software firm Spirit DSP, a voice and video over IP (VVoIP) engines provider, is entering the Indian market in partnership with Infotel Broadband Services, a Reliance Industries-owned company that will launch its fourth generation (4G) technology-based broadband services in Mumbai, Delhi and Jamnagar (in Gujarat).
Reliance Industries Ltd recently formally announced a $450-million joint venture with Russian petrochemical company Sibur, for setting up a one hundred thousand tonne butyl rubber plant at Reliance's Jamnagar refinery. The plant is expected to be commissioned by the second half of 2014 (calendar). The joint venture has been named as Reliance Sibur Elastomers Pvt Ltd.
The Modi Factor
The latest power politics played out by Modi in the Indian capital on February 6 through his politically-loaded lecture at the prestigious Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) and Modi’s rapidly ascending political graph have not gone unnoticed by the Russians. The Russians cannot be faulted if they feel that the UPA government is a sinking ship, though that does not mean that Russia would be distancing itself from Manmohan Singh’s government.
Modi has already emerged as the most luminous beacon of hope for the BJP and a red rag for the Congress party. The assessment of an influential section of the BJP, which is fast gaining currency, is that the BJP can ride to power without needing support from any allies if it projects Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. This is despite the fact that the Congress is all set to be led by Rahul Gandhi in the next general election.
Modi No Longer an International Pariah
Modi is no longer an international pariah that the international diplomatic community made him after India’s one of the worst communal riots in Gujarat under his chief ministership a decade ago. British High Commissioner James Bevan signalled the international trend when he travelled to Gandhinagar to meet Modi two months before Gujarat elections, conveying not only British government’s confidence in Modi’s upcoming electoral victory but also signalling London’s re-engagement with Gujarat under Modi.
The 27-nation European Union followed in the United Kingdom’s footsteps only after his formal victory. Weeks after he took over as Gujarat CM for the third time, the EU formally lifted its decade-old diplomatic boycott and the ambassadors of all the countries of the European Union gathered at German Ambassador Michael Steiner’s residence on January 7 to host a lunch with Modi.
The United States, however, has remained steadfast in its anti-Modi stance and made clear that Modi would be unwelcome in the US.
Will Russia be a Step Ahead of EU?
There is speculation that Russia may even go a step ahead of EU and engage with the BJP in an incremental manner so that it does not float an impression that the Russian diplomats in India are going out of their way in wooing the BJP. It is only to keep their diplomatic gunpowder, so to say, dry.
The Russians’ likely upcoming strategy goes far beyond the pale of diplomatic symbolism sent out by BJP stalwart L.K. Advani. In an unprecedented gesture, completely unheard of in diplomatic circles, Russian Ambassador to India Alexander Kadakin brushed aside diplomatic protocol and touched Advani’s feet while visiting the leader to wish him on his 85th birthday in November 2012. Press Trust of India had reported that Kadakin was one of the first visitors to reach Advani's residence and soon after alighting from his car, Kadakin presented Advani with a bouquet and then bent down to touch Advani's feet to seek his blessings.
Kadakin’s gesture was obviously individual-specific and not politically-loaded because it is public knowledge that Modi has turned frigid towards Advani who once used to be his benefactor.
The Russian embassy in New Delhi, however, has strongly refuted reports that the Russian diplomats plan to step up their engagement with the BJP because it is likely to win the next general election.
Sergey Karmalito, Senior Counsellor and Spokesman in the Russian embassy in New Delhi, told this writer that such imputations and interpretations were not correct. “This will be an incorrect way of looking at the things. We are engaged with all important political parties of India, whether it is the Left, or the BJP or the Congress or Mulayam Singh’s party.”
Karmalito also played down the episode about Kadakin touching Advani’s feet and remarked thus: “That was a special event, the 85th birthday of Mr Advani.” The Russian diplomat added that Kadakin had not met Advani since then.
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