A Quiet Serenade

Placidity marked the summit between Vladimir Putin and Atal Behari Vajpayee at Delhi last week. Barring the media, neither side expected spectacular conquests. The outcome should not surprise any observer who cares to go beyond the immediate event and considers the context that informed the meeting. The decade of the nineties saw the world change drastically and without notice. Europe is in a drift posing dilemmas for Russia that is at once European and Asian. Russia is as different from the old Soviet Union as the Bharatiya Janata Party (India’s ruling party) is from the Indian National Congress. These shifts plus a new world, where every country except the United States is groping for a firm grip, explain the copy book interaction between the two countries last week.

The Delhi Declaration Putin and Vajpayee signed is eloquent on familiar issues but it is the silences of the texts that yield sense and not just meanings. Putin’s interviews to the media on the eve of the summit set the limits of expectations, as did media kite flying in India. Clear formulations were available relating to defense, trade and terrorism. But there was neither denial nor confirmation of the speculation on a triangular axis with China. In the end, one has to concede that the annual summit itself is a unique feature indicating that the relations between the two countries are headed for a rediscovery of the old glory and romance of bilateral ties in the Soviet era.

In the altered scenario, India is less of a player in the international arena than Russia, which, despite its economic worries, has not lost any of its influence either with Europe or the US. Putin has done excellent work in repairing domestic economy and rebuilding equations with the United States and China. This shows how weak is the perception that regards the reference to a Russia-India-China axis as directed against Washington. The future of bilateral relations depends on building a strong and mutually beneficial trade base. Growing at a rate of more than 5 per cent, the Russian economy offers an excellent market for Indian merchandise. The unmanageable demand for consumer goods in India ought to interest the czars in the Russian private sector.

Today, trade is the weakest link between the two countries. India’s exports to Russia fell to 2 per cent from 18.3 per cent in 1980-81 while Russia’s exports to India also slumped from 8.1 per cent in the Soviet era to just 1 per cent last year. In the words of Putin “our trade turnover is not just low, but inadmissibly low.” This grim situation should serve as an invitation to the private sector in both countries to play a big role. Both sides signed a joint declaration on strengthening and enhancing economic, scientific and technological co-operation identifying nine areas to increase business interaction.

India needs to immediately recapture the market for its tea that it has lost to Sri Lanka. India’s information industry must begin to look Moscowwards too. In his address to the captains of Indian industry, Putin called for a breakthrough in mutual trade abjuring the trade relationship based on rupee debt. He referred to Indian collaboration in major oil projects such as Sakhalin I and to the involvement of Russian companies in oil exploration in the Bay of Bengal. Delhi, of course, is eager to seize the trade opportunities Russia offers. Putin told newsmen that his country was willing to step up co-operation to increase the capacity in nuclear power generation beyond the Koodanakulam project within the framework of international rules and regulations.

Much noise preceded the negotiations on defense deals. Parleys on the sale of aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov and the T-22 bomber are hanging fire over the price of retrofitting the carrier and equipping it with 40 aircraft. Linked to this deal are the two Akula-class nuclear submarines. Russia is expected to replace the submarines’ 3,000-km-range cruise missiles with 300-km-range missile to respect the missile control regime. The talks gained some momentum after Russian minister Ilya Klebanov met India’s defense minister George Fernandes last month. The Delhi Declaration was silent on Gorshkov and several defense deals under negotiation. Indian Navy badly needs the aircraft carrier.

Moscow continues to be Delhi’s biggest supplier of defense needs. India is also interested in the speeding up of the process of licensing the production of Sukhoi-30 fighter planes, their first squadron already operational. But Hindustan Aircraft Limited is waiting for a Russian license to make 140 more planes, transfer of technology, supply of raw material and support technicians. Other things awaiting delivery are two Krivac stealth frigates and Smerch multi-barrel rocket delivery system. They will go a long way in forging stronger defense bonds. None of these deals bind Russia or India to any exclusive and strategic relationship. On both sides, these are businesslike deals. In the defense area, each needs the other. The computing of trade turnover between the two countries depends on whether defense supplies are regarded as commercial or strategic.

The Moscow-Delhi-Beijing axis is a proposal Russia made long before Putin became the Russian president. It received life from a meeting between the foreign ministers of the three countries in the backrooms of the UN General Assembly last September. The anti-American lobby plays with the idea despite the impracticability of such a plan. Impracticable because all the three countries need the goodwill of the United States in several areas. None of them, singly or jointly, are inclined to take on Washington which has closer ties with each one of them than any two of them have between themselves. India does not seriously consider such a proposal. India’s foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal told the media, “there is no proposal for any strategic configuration that you are speaking of.”

Terrorism and secessionism worry both countries and generate common responses. They regard terrorism at once as a national and international phenomenon, gradually betraying the hand of a common culprit. Putin called for strengthening the international non-proliferation regime to prevent weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists. The Indian media saw this as a subtle reference to Pakistan. This inference was not necessary because Putin clearly told an Indian newsman that “one such concern that we have is the weapons of mass destruction in Pakistan. We have to have a clear picture of where these weapons are and of what will happen to them in the future.”

Moscow was more forthcoming and unambiguous in endorsing Delhi’s stand that any dialogue with Pakistan can only begin after Islamabad completely checks cross-border infiltration by terrorists and dismantles terrorist infrastructures in its territory. There was also an acknowledgement that any meaningful Indo-Pak dialogue could take place only within the framework of the Shimla agreement and the Lahore declaration. Experts in India believe that in return for this support, India has endorsed Moscow’s stance on weaponization of space. The Delhi Declaration called for early start of multilateral talks aimed at preparing a comprehensive arrangement on non-deployment of weapons in outer space, not using or threatening to use force in respect of space-based objects etc.

Putin’s trip is a lesson in post 11/September diplomacy dedicated to Russian recovery, a goal that subordinates petty rivalries and prejudices to national interest. It is a model, if one were needed, the Indian side could imitate fruitfully. In contrast, India’s development, economically and internationally, is hostage to partisan politics, overenthusiastic media and a variety of charlatans masquerading as NGOs and peaceniks. In the end, a country’s success depends on how objectively it can consider itself, its strengths and weaknesses. This is Putin’s strong point and, therefore, of Russia.

Dasu Krishnamoorty contributed this article to PRAVDA.Ru

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