“Should old acquaintance be forgot”, asks the famous song Auld Lang Syne, traditionally sung at the year’s end. Prime Minister Narendra >Modi’s visit to Russia last week, much in the manner of the song, was as much about reassuring a “strong and reliable friend of India”, as he referred to Russia, as it was about chalking out new avenues for future cooperation in defence, energy and space. These avenues are well- charted, with the annual summit between both countries giving a consistent direction on all bilateral agreements, but relations have flagged in the past few years. This year the summit itself had to be put off several times for one reason or another, and it was finally held on Christmas-eve, which was the last possible window before Russia shuts down for holidays. In contrast, India’s relationship with the other world power, the United States, has seen a dramatic year, particularly in military engagement. From U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to New Delhi as chief guest at the Republic Day parade, when India and the U.S. signed their first military agreement outside South Asia as a maritime cooperation agreement, firming up of more military exercises and joint development of defence equipment, visits by top U.S. generals, and the first-ever visit by the Indian Defence Minister to an American military base — all have given the impression that India is abandoning its traditionally neutral strategic space.
While Prime Minister Modi’s visit may not have resulted in overturning that impression entirely, it has served as a major boost to the outlook on India-Russia ties in the future. First, a series of defence acquisitions announced in the works will put Russia back on top of military suppliers to India, a spot taken by the U.S. and Israel for more than five years. Second, the deal for 200 Ka-226T Kamov helicopters will become the first big Make in India project, which has tended to be only a slogan thus far. Third, by investing time in the CEO summit that included several Indian players in the energy and defence sector, Mr. Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have shown a desire to involve the private sector in areas that only saw government-to-government deals. This move is the most significant: despite the close friendship the two have fostered, the immense goodwill the people of the two countries share and the major dependence the Indian military has on Russian hardware, bilateral trade ties have always been poor, and even today languish below $10 billion. Russian and Indian industry’s interest and investment will give what the leaders referred to as the old friendship’s “new energy”. An energy that will also bolster India’s plans for new ties with Central Asia, and more recently, in the trips Mr. Modi made straight after his Moscow visit, with Afghanistan and Pakistan.