Monday, September 4, 2000

Old friends, now forgotten

The Russians are coming. A fortnight after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee returns from Washington, Russian President Vladimir Putin will be in India. It is a sign of the times, however, that while the hype surrounding Vajpayee's United States visit started months ago, there is very little noise in the media or within the strategic community about Putin's visit.
This, after all, is the first Russian presidential visit in over seven years after Boris Yeltsin's trip to India in Jan. 1993 (a second visit by Yeltsin was postponed four times ostensibly because of his ill health).
A declaration on strategic partnership between India and Russia is expected to be signed during Putin's visit. Russian Prime Minister Primakov had agreed to this during his Dec. 1998 visit to India.
Official reports stress, "Indo-Russian relations are civilizational and time-tested." They argue that the importance attached to them cuts across party lines, is not subject to political vicissitudes, and, that there is a national consensus on the need for a strong and stable relationship with the Russian Federation.
But, in reality, Russia seems to be fast shifting to the margins of Indian elite consciousness. Opinion surveys reveal that only one-third of Indians believe that Russia is one of the three most important countries for India. And Moscow is among the least preferred tourist destinations for Indians. This is unfortunate.
True, India's relations with Russia may never be able to replicate those that New Delhi had with the Soviet Union, but Moscow is still an important partner and it is critical to further bilateral ties for a variety of reasons.
First, historically Russia has been a close ally, has stood by India during difficult times and continues to do so. The Soviet Union's veto on Kashmir in the UN Security Council, for instance, during the 1950s and the 1960s prevented the international organization from playing a more interventionist role in the dispute.
Even during the 1999 Kargil war, Russian fully supported the Indian armed forces and its efforts to clear the infiltrators from the heights that they had occupied. Russia has also consistently emphasized that the resolution to the Kashmir issue must be on the basis of bilateral talks within the framework of the Shimla and Lahore Agreements. And this has been New Delhi's position as well.
Second, Russia has also been supportive of India's candidature for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. According to government sources, the Russian leadership at the highest level has repeatedly expressed support for an Indian claim. Russia supported India's candidature for the Non-Permanent Seat of the UN Security Council for the year 1997-98. During his Dec. 1998 India visit, Primakov described India as a "strong and appropriate" candidate for permanent membership of an expanded UN Security Council.
Third, the Indian armed forces are still critically dependent on the Russian arms industry, especially for spares. This relationship of dependence is unlikely to end in the foreseeable future. A Joint Working Group on Military Technical Cooperation has been set up to monitor Indo-Russian Defence Co-operation.
In the past, Russia had given assistance to India's fledgling space program as well. The Soviet side assisted India in the establishment of the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station and the launching of Indian experimental satellites Aryabhata, Bhaskara 1 and Bhaskara 2. The Indian remote sensing satellites IRS-1A/1B were launched by Soviet launch vehicles.
And there are, despite controversies and American opposition, also continued prospects for nuclear co-operation. Recall that the agreement on the construction of a 2x1000 MW nuclear power station at Kudankulam was signed between Rajiv Gandhi and Gorbachev in Nov. 1988. A contract for the preparation of a Detailed Project Report (DPR) for the project was signed in Moscow on July 20, 1998, and - hopefully - there will some tangible movement on this score in the near future.
Finally, despite the deep inroads made by western pop culture, Indian culture is still valued in Russia. The days when ordinary Muscovites sang "Mera Joota Hai Japani" might be over, but Indian cinema, dance and music still appeal to a significant section of Russians. In addition, the strength of the Indian student community in Russia has grown from around 3,500 in 1993 to about 7,000 in 1998. For Russian visitors, including the more notorious ones that inhabit Delhi's Paharganj, India is one of the top tourist destinations.
In other words, there is still a lot that Russia can offer India, and vice versa. And relations with Moscow need not be any longer viewed, as they were during the Cold War period, in a zero-sum context, vis--vis New Delhi's relations with Washington.
Both Russia and India recognize the vital importance of engaging the United States, even while they continue with their quest for a multipolar world order.
It would, however, be nave to have unreal expectations from Russia. The Russian polity and economy are still in deep turmoil, and their foreign policy is still undergoing profound changes. Ideology and past relationships play little role in cementing present ties, and the Russians are obviously looking primarily toward the West for continued assistance in the resuscitation of their economy.
A down-to-earth pragmatic approach that recognizes the convergence of important interests today, rather than nostalgia for the past, should be the basis for building future ties between India and Russia.


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