Vidya Subrahmaniam

If Germany and Turkey can reach out to Russia despite a history of conflict with it, there is no reason why India, which has never had a conflict of interest with its once best friend, cannot.

With India’s relationship with the United States and China under relentless focus, it is not surprising that the Indian President’s recent visit to the Russian Federation went almost unnoticed. Yet the trip served to remind both sides of a friendship that they once swore by and whose potential remains high despite years of mutual neglect, changed global circumstances and diversification of interests.

At one level, Pratibha Patil’s trip, like any presidential outing, was all ceremony and nostalgia. Dulcet tunes from the Raj Kapoor-directed Shri 420 filled the Grand Kremlin Palace’s incredibly beautiful gold and red Alexander Hall when President Dmitry Medvedev raised a toast to his Indian guest. If the blast from the past was ever so sweet, so was the ritual recalling of the golden years of “Hindi-Rusi bhai-bhai” and the references to India and Russia’s shared civilisational roots.

Yet as the tour progressed, and the Indian presidential delegation was swept up in a whirlwind of high-level meetings and state events, it became clear that the visit was more than a goodwill exercise, that the rhetorical flourishes in the individual and joint statements were not as ornamental as they seemed; indeed, that there were strains in the once rock-solid bilateral relationship that the trip would strive to address — not through dramatic gestures and agreements as might be expected from a Prime Minister-level summit, but via signals and words conveyed by Ms Patil that Moscow would weigh, interpret and absorb.

On the flight into Moscow, Indian officials had admitted to a “sense of drifting away on both sides.” It was only a perception, they hastened to add, yet they had no answers to why such a perception must undermine a relationship they said was strong and based on high levels of trust. The unease was evident in Moscow too, with the intelligentsia — the media, security analysts, policy wonks, etc., — nearly unanimous that India-Russia relations, never the same after the break up of the Soviet Union, had suffered more recently from India’s “obsessive” engagement of the United States, and Russia, in turn looking elsewhere to consolidate its business and strategic interests.

At the people-to-people level, there was goodwill, yes. Older generation Russians spoke with genuine affection about India; after all, the international friendship had dominated their growing up years. As Russian analysts invariably pointed out, “there is nothing but good feeling for India.” But for the younger lot, exposed much more to the West than their parents, India was a fading, distant memory. Awara and the Kapoors had no name recall among them, and for those of us on the Indian side raised on weekly doses of Soviet Land and stories of India-Soviet bonding, the Russia we were visiting turned out to be not the country of our imagination.

Most Russians had not heard of the ongoing “Year of India in Russia” celebrations just as not many in India knew that 2008 was celebrated in India as the “Year of Russia in India.” The “gala concert” that the Indian side had billed as the high point of Ms Patil’s visit turned out to be an indifferent affair with the organisers struggling to find audiences for the below-par performance put up by Indian artistes at the world famous Bolshoi theatre.

That the Indian side was only too conscious of the tensions was apparent from Ms Patil twice choosing to place the relationship in its own context. At Mr. Medvedev’s banquet, she had spoken of countries, including Russia and India, pursuing “multi-vector” foreign policies. “However,” she added, “I can assure our Russian partners that even as we improve our relations with other countries, it will not be to the detriment of our tried and tested friendship.” The Indian President reiterated the point at her meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. India’s relationship with Russia, she said, will not be “at the expense of its relationship with other countries.”

To observers in Moscow, it was plain that by “other countries” Ms Patil had meant the U.S. India would have no reason to “assure” Russia about any other relationship, nor would a visiting Indian President stress a point like this unless there was a felt need to do so. At an informal briefing by Indian officials, a Moscow-based journalist came quickly to the heart of the matter, asking, “Is it not a fact that India is sitting in the lap of the United States?” Clearly upset at the accusation, the Indian side once again emphasised the “unique” nature of the bilateral relationship which ought not to be “viewed from the prism of any other relationship.” Keeping this relationship on track was not only “one of our top foreign policy priorities but is the cornerstone of our foreign policy.” The visitors also drew the reporter’s attention to Mr. Putin’s own reminder that the relationship was truly and really one of a kind: “Russia’s support for India at the Nuclear Suppliers Group in defence and nuclear cooperation showed the truly strategic nature of our partnership. Russia does not have this kind of a relationship with any other country.”

Back in India, reaction to the outcome of the visit has varied from “usual diplomatic hyperbole” to “there is indeed some recognition that this relationship is strategically important and must come to the front burner.” There is unanimity of opinion that the Soviet Union’s “immeasurable” assistance in defence and heavy industry contributed to making India what it is today. Russia has continued this support and, despite some problem areas, remains India’s most important military supplier even today — at a time when India has started to diversify its purchases. A case in point is the nuclear submarine built with 60 per cent Russian assistance.

Not just this. If the Soviet Union unfailingly backed India on Kashmir, Russia has done its bit for advancing India’s nuclear ambitions and in the face of perceived American attempt to roll back the clean exemption given last year by the NSG. Ms Patil was still on Russian soil when Moscow sent word that Russia would not agree to the Washington-authored G-8 curbs on the sale of Enrichment and Reprocessing items and technology.

Nobody, not even the most enthusiastic backer of closer Indo-U.S. ties, refutes Russia’s crucial place in India’s foreign policy scheme more so given the problematic future shape of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. The U.S. tilt towards India is no longer as visible as it was in the George Bush days, which means that India would need all the help it can muster in the event of the region exploding into a crisis.

The emerging view in India is that India-Russia relations can never reach the heights scaled by India and the Soviet Union simply because there are 15 countries today where there was just one country earlier. India has necessarily to engage the U.S., and it cannot be faulted either for seeking to diversify its military purchases. But equally, there is a need to be transparent with Russia and invest sincerely and visibly in the relationship. There is a solid reason for doing so. The foreign policy interests of India and Russia almost converge, and the two countries uniquely have no conflict of interest.

Yet all this might come to nothing if India and Russia do not improve the currently abysmal levels of bilateral trade. The two countries are hoping eventually to raise trade volumes from the existing $2.5 billion to $10 billion. To place this in proper perspective, one has only to consider trade volumes between Russia and the European Union, which tripled between 2000 and 2007 to $63 billion and even between Russia and Turkey, which rose from $11 billion in 2004 to $38 billion in 2009.

New Delhi has made much of the annual reciprocal visits to India and Russia by the two Prime Ministers. But there has been far more to-ing and fro-ing between Russia and Germany which recognises the strategic importance of gas-rich Russia and wants it integrated into the European economy. If Germany and Turkey could reach out to Russia despite a history of conflict with it, why cannot India which admittedly has never had a conflict of interest with Russia?

As the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, and second largest of oil, Russia has enough and more to satiate India’s energy security needs. India has spent valuable time revisiting done deals with the U.S. (not signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, civil nuclear deal, etc.). It can surely spare some time to rebuild relations with an old friend.