India’s Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai outlined India’s priority in boosting India-Russia partnership at the sixth India-Russia dialogue in New Delhi last week. Mathai’s outline can be categorized into the following: post-cold war world order; defence cooperation; nuclear cooperation; north-south corridor; and exploring avenues for economic cooperation. He argued, in the post-cold war world, “Our (India’s) relations with Russia remain a key priority for India’s foreign policy, and one which adds decisive value to our national capacities. We also like to believe that India continues to be as relevant to Russia.” It was during the visit of President Putin to India in 2000 both countries had signed strategic partnership document, which among other things had emphasized the imperative of bilateral cooperation to foster a multipolar cooperative security architecture governing interstate relations. Though earlier ideas of multilateral cooperation like Russia-India-China triangle could take shape, it was only after 2000 multipolarism as a major foreign policy plank of India and Russia took a concrete shape. The organizations like BRICS further strengthened this multipolar architecture. Hence, the emphasis of Mathai, official spokesperson on India’s foreign policy, on post-cold war multipolar order assumes new significance in the context of President Putin’s visit to India next month. Most likely, during the visit both the countries will reiterate their common position on the evolution of multipolar cooperative world order.
Admitting that almost 70 per cent of India’s military hardware are of Soviet/Russian origin, the foreign secretary raised the pitch for invigorating defence relations between the two countries… Irritants like Admiral Gorshkov aside, the two countries have made rapid strides in other areas of defence cooperation. Mathai pointed out, “More importantly, we have moved to a phase of joint design and development, and of multi-year joint collaboration programmes, with substantive sharing of critical technologies. This is what makes our defence partnership unique and will sustain it over the next decade.” Though India has diversified its defence cooperation, Russia still remains a major defence partner. One of the major soothing moments for the champions of India-Russia partnership is the announcement by the foreign secretary the commissioning of Kundan Kulam-1 nuclear power plant shortly. Mathai argued, “Enough scientific studies have been undertaken and experts have given us credible assurances on the high safety and security parameters of this plant.” It needs emphasis that the nuclear issue, particularly the plants at Kudan Kulam, has recently emerged as a major thorn in bilateral relations. The politicization of the plant, the compulsions of the coalition politics, and the political brinkmanship of some of the local leaders have almost created a miasma of pessimism whether the plant will be operationalized at all. The foreign secretary’s statement further brings the matter to a point of clarity, and reflects Indian government’s commitment to bilateral agreements. It is hoped that the plant will be operationalized by the time President Putin visits India.
Economic relationship minus the agreements on defence and nuclear cooperation has become disappointing, and the foreign secretary was candid enough to admit this critical gap in the strategic partnership matrix, and termed it a “major disappointment.” Accoring to him, “a major disappointment has been the inability of our trade and economic ties, led by our private players, to match the strategic ties led by our governments.” He further noted, “We have for instance, identified a few sunrise industries which we can focus on: these include pharmaceuticals, information technology and space-based navigation systems for civilian purposes.” Though India and Russia are trillion dollar plus economies, their bilateral economic relationship lags far behind despite huge potentials for cooperation. The bilateral trade is staggering at about $10 billion, which both the countries hope to double by the year 2015. Another important development is India’s interest in Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with the Customs Union, in which Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus are members. Indian government hopes “to start focused discussions soon on a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.” During the forthcoming Putin visit, India is likely to raise the issue, and push this agreement, which can accrue it economic advantages.
Another crucial issue that found mention in foreign secretary’s outline is the emphasis on providing the idea of North-South corridor linking Russia’s south to India’s north a concrete shape. Such a corridor will significantly reduce the time of travel, and also the cost. Mathai argued, “The government of India has been vigorously pursuing the idea of streamlining the North-South trade corridor which can link Mumbai to St. Petersburg, with a 40 per cent cut in cost and time. We are pushing for a joint investment fund that could promote infrastructure projects in both countries.” India and Russia can further initiate dialogues with countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and countries of Central Asia for the realization of such a project. Though there is India-Russia business to business dialogue which takes place every year, and other major forums like Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation deliberate on bilateral issues, they appear to lack synergy particularly from the economic point of view. However, Mathai attempted to shed this negativist outlook on economic cooperation and emphasized that these bilateral bodies “have been making efforts to come up with such creative solutions to meet the increasingly stiff task of raising our trade levels…” The public-private partnership needs to be encouraged to realize innovative ideas like the North-South corridor. In the era of globalization and economic development, such economic issues need to be given primacy over other issues.
It can be reasonably argued that pessimism and turbulence in India-Russia relationship generated in past few months are fading away. With Indian government proactively championing a dynamic bilateral relationship, the coming months will witness further widening of the scope of partnership. By the time Putin visits India, the bilateral relations would have expectedly moved forward.