By Vijay Darda | 17-10-2016
India’s strategic relationship with the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and then its successor state of Russia has a historic background that dates back to early mid-fifties and the sixties. The relationship was literally cast in stone when the then prime minister Indira Gandhi signed the India-USSR Friendship Treaty in August 1971. In the immediate aftermath it stood her in good stead as she battled the multi- dimensional East Pakistani refugee crisis which led to events that changed politico-geographic map of the South Asian region and created Bangladesh. The USSR supported India strategically, militarily and diplomatically. In the cold war era, it was India’s only super power friend.
We must remember that this was the time when President Richard Nixon of the USA was aggressively wooing China and was also known for his infamous tilt towards the Pakistani military dictator Gen. Yahya Khan. The Nixon-Kissinger duo was unconcerned by the impact of the genocide unleashed by him in East Pakistan.
This week on the sidelines of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Goa, prime minister Narendra Modi met the Russian president Vladimir Putin and gave a renewed push to the old ties emphasising “one old friend is better than two new” in an apparent reference to the recent joint military exercises between Pakistan and Russia. But any remnants of doubts about the quality of the ties were obliterated by the joint statement, the 16 agreements and three announcements that covered a wide range of mutual interests.
The deals would have long term implications but the satisfying part of the joint statement at the end of the Modi-Putin meeting for the Indian side is echo on the issue of terrorism in all its forms. “India deeply appreciated Russia’s understanding and support of our actions to fight cross-border terrorism, that threatens our region. We both affirmed the need for zero tolerance in dealing with terrorists and their supporters,” joint statement said.
This was the kind of ringing endorsement that India was looking from a major power in its current battle with Pakistan. In this context, Russia has always understood and backed India’s interests. As the foreign secretary S Jaishankar put it: “After their talks, we are satisfied that Russia understands India’s interests and will not act against these…there was a very strong meeting of minds on this.”
The deals amounting to $24 billion correct the tilt in India’s trade ties towards western countries that have been getting a larger share of defence procurement contract. But this time with three key deals to acquire advanced air defence missile systems, stealth frigates and to jointly produce light-utility helicopters, Russia gets three projects collectively worth an estimated $10.5 billion (over Rs 72,000 crore). Of these the S-400 Triumf missile systems which basically have three kinds of missiles that fly at supersonic and hypersonic speeds to intercept targets at ranges from 120-400 km, India will acquire five of these, three meant for the western front with Pakistan and the other two for the eastern front with China can shoot down Chinese or Pakistani fighters while they fly in their own airspace. This will be a game changer for our defence preparedness. Just as the two other projects – nuclear enabled stealth frigates and the joint venture to produce 200 Kamov-226T light utility helicopters – will add to our efforts to modernise our defence systems. The joint venture for the choppers will also add to ‘Make in India’ drive.
The only commercial deal that has been signed involves a consortium comprising Russian energy giant Rosneft, commodities trader Trafigura, and Russian fund United Capital Partners (UCP) acquiring nearly the entire stake owned by the Ruias in Essar Oil for $12.9 billion. This is the largest-ever single foreign direct investment in India. It also signals prime minister Modi’s desire to build an “Energy Bridge” with Moscow involving a combination of robust civil nuclear cooperation, LNG sourcing, partnership in the oil and gas sector, and engagement in renewables.
We have to see the Putin-Modi engagement in contrast with India’s efforts to persuade the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s sustained stand over two key issues – getting Masood Azhar declared as a designated terrorist by the United Nations, and our efforts to get full membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG). On both issues Russia has declared its unequivocal support but even after three Modi-Jinping meetings in one year China remains unmoved. There is no stumbling block as such as both sides remain in touch. Now there would be another meeting between the National Security Advisers of the two sides.
But the Chinese attitude annoys the Indian common man especially as it comes in the face of the fact that India is China’s biggest trading partner with annual bilateral trade over $ 75 billion and heavily loaded in China’s favour. This time however President Jinping has offered direct investments by China as a route to reducing the trade deficit.
The ill-logic of the Chinese position dictated not by its intrinsic national interests (after all how does it matter to Beijing if Masood Azhar is banned or not, the decision will impact Pakistan, if at all and similarly India’s membership of NSG does not affect Beijing’s interests) but because of its all weather relationship will dawn on its leadership, hopefully sooner than later. However, in international diplomacy nothing comes for free so it is time India makes some moves through trade restrictions or some other mechanism for China to see reason. After all, from smart phones to fire crackers the Indian market is flooded with the Chinese brands. Indeed, China should realise that India’s is a democracy and a clamp-down on its products need not be sanctioned by any official agency and the people on their own can be very effective in this respect.
These bilaterals may grab the headlines but behind the glare of the media the multi-lateral events like the BRICS contribute a lot in resolving global issues related to development and the economy. More importantly, these events promote interaction between leaders.
Before I conclude…
India has done well to conduct the surgical strikes across the border. It may not have ended cross border terrorism from Pakistan, but a clear message has gone to Islamabad that there is a price to pay. But then round of politics over it in the domestic arena does not do us proud. It is not a subject for daily discussion, after all it is a matter of national security where deeds and not words count. Let those responsible for the task do it, and the politicians refrain from daily commentary.