The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (“SPIEF”) which Russia holds every year in early summer in St.Petersburg invariably highlights Russia’s relations with one particular country. This year that country was India.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended SPIEF at the head of a strong Indian delegation. He had a bilateral meeting with Russian President Putin, and together with Putin attended SPIEF’s plenary session.
Putin and Modi then attended together a meeting with Indian business people who had come with Modi to SPIEF, a package of economic and other agreements focused mainly on upgrades to India’s infrastructure followed, and Putin and Modi rounded up their series of meetings with public statements reaffirming in fulsome terms the close friendship between the two countries.
This very friendly relationship between India and Russia is in many ways surprising.
The two countries do not have a close economic relationship, though part of the purpose of the meetings between Putin and Modi was to try to make it closer.
The two countries do cooperate in defence related matters, with Russia apparently in advanced talks to supply India with S-400 surface to air missiles to India. However defence cooperation between the two countries is no longer as close as it once was. India has pulled out of the joint IL-214 medium transport aircraft programme, has chosen to buy Rafale fighter jets from France in preference to MiG-35 fighters from Russia, and is reported to be having doubts about its joint development of a two seat fifth generation fighter based on Russia’s SU-T50, which is currently on flight test.
On international questions India has a fractious relationship with Russia’s great ally China, regards China’s ally Pakistan – with which Russia is improving relations – as its primary enemy, and has been improving its relations with the US, with which Russia’s relationship is extremely difficult.
Nonetheless political relations between India and Russia remain close, and the personal relationship between Putin and Modi appears to be extremely warm.
What explains this in some ways surprisingly strong relationship?
A major factor is sentiment.
The Russians have an enduring fascination with India extending far back into the nineteenth century, as reflected for example in Rimsky Korsakov’s Song of the Indian Guest, the Russian ballet La Bayadère (“the Indian Temple dancer”), and the curious Indian influenced Theosophical ideas of Madame Blavatsky.
These expressions of nineteenth century Orientalism took place in Russia alongside rigorous academic study of Indian culture and philosophy, in which Russia continues to excel to this day. One of the best and most complete translations in any European language of the great Indian liturgical poem the Rigveda is in Russian, made in Russia by the great Russian scholar Tatyana Elizarenkova as part of a huge translation project starting in the 1970s.
Tsarist Russia however had no political relationship with India, which would in fact have been impossible during this period when India was part of the British empire. Subsequently, after the 1917 Revolution, the Soviets took a strong interest in the Indian independence movement but disapproved of the pacifist and religiously oriented line followed by India’s two independence leaders, Gandhi and Nehru.
However following Indian independence relations between the USSR and India became extremely close.
The USSR lost no time establishing diplomatic relations with India after India gained independence in 1948, and Krishna Menon, India’s ambassador at large, was the last foreign guest to be received by Stalin on 17th February 1953, two weeks before his death (Krishna Menon has left a vivid and insightful account of the meeting).
Krishna Menon’s meeting with Stalin was followed two years later by Indian Prime Minister Nehru’s first visit to the USSR in June 1955, and – a few months later, in November 1955 – by the reciprocal visit of Khrushchev and Bulganin to India.
Very friendly ties were established as a result of these visits. Following his trip to the USSR Nehru supposedly spoke of having left ‘part of his heart’ there, whilst Khrushchev during his visit is reported to have said that if India ever got into trouble all it needed to do was “shout across the Himalayas”.
Unquestionably the Indians were influenced by the Russians’ enthusiasm for India, but there is no doubt that Prime Minister Nehru, a socialist, also felt a strong ideological affinity for the USSR, as shown for example in these passages in his book Discovery of India
The Soviet revolution has moved human society forward by a great leap and sparked a fire that can never be extinguished. It laid the foundation of that new civilisation, towards which the world would move…..The October revolution was undoubtedly one of the great events of world history, the greatest since the first French revolution, and its story is more absorbing from a human and dramatic point of view, than any tale or phantasy….It is difficult to feel indifferent towards Russia, and it is more difficult to judge her achievements and her failures impartially….
Unsurprisingly Nehru the socialist also tended to look to the USSR for economic development models for India, as shown for example by this comment
Russia thus interests us, because it may help us to find some solution for the serious problems which the world faces today.. It interests us especially because conditions there have not been, and are not even now, very dissimilar to conditions in India. Both are vast agricultural countries with only the beginning of industrialisation, and both have to face poverty and illiteracy. If Russia finds a satisfactory solution for these, our work in India would be made easier.
It should be said however that despite expressing these sentiments Nehru never attempted to reproduce in India anything that remotely resembled the Soviet economic model.
Beyond these sentiments, Soviet-Indian friendship from the 1950s was consolidated by certain very clear shared geostrategic interests.
For the USSR India was a key friend during the Cold War. Though never exactly an ally, during difficult periods in the Cold War when the USSR appeared to be threatened with international isolation the fact that the USSR had a close friend in India – by population the world’s second largest country, and a major power – was for the Soviets always psychologically reassuring.
For the Indians friendship with the USSR gave India important leverage in its relations with the US, and protection from the two countries which from the 1960s India came to see as increasingly hostile: Pakistan and China.
Indeed the simultaneous collapse of India’s and the USSR’s once close relationships with China after 1960 became a key factor in consolidating their friendship, with the pivotal event being the USSR’s decision to side with India against China in the Indo-Chinese border war of 1962.
The decade after 1962 was the heyday of Indian-Soviet friendship, with the USSR re-equipping the Indian armed forces, building after 1964 a huge complex in India to build MiG-21 fighters, and making major investments in India’s heavy industry and technology base.
Soviet political, diplomatic and military assistance was also crucial in enabling India to win the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, which conclusively established India as the dominant power on the Indian subcontinent.
Inevitably such an intense relationship between India and the USSR created conditions for a strong friendship, which has never ceased.
The Russians during this period became accustomed to thinking of India as a friend, whilst the Indians for their part could not ignore or overlook the fact that in every major crisis India faced after independence it could always rely on support from the USSR.
This close relationship between the USSR and India however always had a somewhat artificial character.
Though the USSR played a major role in the 1960s in upgrading India’s industrial and technological base, the economic relationship was never reciprocal since the centrally planned Soviet economy was ill adapted to trade relationships with third countries outside the Soviet sphere, and India anyway at this time had little to offer which was of interest to the USSR’s planners.
The result was that when the USSR disintegrated in 1991 there was no firm basis for the economic links which had been forged in the 1960s to continue. Economic contacts between the two countries dwindled and have never since then been strong. Today the trade relationship between Russia and India is barely significant, with neither country featuring amongst the significant trading partners of the other.
It has also been the case that since 1991 the two countries have become significantly less important to each other politically.
The disintegration of the USSR in 1991 led to a steep decline in Russian power at precisely the time when the Indian economy began to put on speed and when India began to forge strong diplomatic ties with other states, notably since 2000 with the US.
Moreover whereas in the 1960s the USSR’s economy dwarfed India’s, today India’s economy is larger than Russia’s, though the standard of living in India continues to be lower than in Russia. Inevitably that reduces the attraction for India of economic ties with Russia.
Overshadowing everything is the rise of China and the change in attitude of the two countries towards China.
Whereas India continues to have a prickly and often rivalrous relationship with China, Russia has become China’s ally.
The paradox in this is that whilst India’s economic relationship with Russia is extremely limited, its political relations with Russia remain friendly, whereas India’s economic relationship with China – its biggest trade partner – is very strong, but its political relations are very uneasy.
The talks between Putin and Modi at SPIEF were mainly intended to find some way to renew the economic relationship between the two countries and to bring it back to something approaching its earlier level. Given that the two countries are not however obvious trade partners it is uncertain whether this can succeed.
The political relationship between the two countries however remains important. The history of friendly ties forged during the heyday of Soviet-Indian friendship in the 1960s, and the fact that the two countries have never had serious conflicts with each other, means that at a political level they continue to get on well with each other. Moreover though their friendship has less value to each country than it did in the 1960s, the fact that they are still friends continues to give them diplomatic leverage in their respective relations with the US and China whilst acting as a generally stabilising factor in international affairs.
The friendship between Russia and China also has one other potentially important advantage for India especially. It provides a bridge between India and China, enabling India and China to use their good relations with Russia to manage their sometimes difficult relationship with each other.
Putin – with Modi sitting right beside him – discussed this at length during during the plenary session at SPIEF
You know, disagreements always have been and still are part of the fabric of our world. Our task – mine, and President Xí Jinping’s and Prime Minister Modi’s – is to find streets, two-way streets, despite all these disagreements, rather than get stuck in dead ends.
Once the three of us – the President of Russia, and the leaders of China and India – got together here some time in 2005 despite all the difficulties, including regional disagreements. We agreed to get together and resolve common problems. This work was launched despite all the difficulties and disagreements.
It was launched and went so well that Brazil and the South African Republic wanted to join us. This led to the emergence of BRICS, which is a major factor in international affairs today. I believe this is a very positive process, and that is how it is viewed by the People’s Republic of China, by the Chinese leaders.
I spoke about this fairly recently, maybe at yesterday’s meeting with the heads of news agencies – we conducted border talks with China for forty years but owing to the atmosphere that was created in our bilateral relations we managed to find a compromise. Of course, one could say that we gave in on something or China gave in on something, but we got it done and it created more opportunities for advancing relations.
We have never had any problems with India. I hope we never will have any. On the contrary, we have only positives, and there are a great many. I am referring to our historical cooperation. Yesterday we signed a number of agreements that are aimed at developing the already traditional areas of cooperation as well as new ones.
We are trying to find new forms of interaction and, naturally, we want to focus on innovative sectors of the modern economy first and foremost. This certainly applies to the nuclear industry, as you mentioned. A number of units are already operating in India and we have ambitious plans for future cooperation. There are very interesting and promising areas for us to work in.
We will provide comprehensive support to those who are involved in this because such cooperation will benefit the people of both India and Russia and, actually, the entire region. This will also facilitate the implementation of the Chinese leadership’s projects related to the Silk Road. We spoke about coordinating efforts of the Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Silk Road plans. There are always issues that require additional study. But we want to follow this path and we will follow it, and provided there is goodwill, we most certainly will achieve success.
(bold italics added)
Though India and China have a prickly relationship, it is in neither of their interests to become outright enemies, a fact fully understood by both. It therefore suits each of them to have in Russia a powerful country which is friendly to both of them, providing a link between them.
This is the reverse of the situation in the 1960s when what brought the USSR and India together was their shared enmity with China. Today on the contrary it is the fact that Russia is an ally of China’s that makes its friendship valuable to India.
Whether the Russians can continue to act successfully as a link between the Chinese and the Indians will depend on how successfully these three Great Powers manage their relations with each other.
The interactions between the Russians and the Indians at SPIEF show that they both understand the nature of this relationship and that they both seem determined to maintain it on a strong level with each other.
That in turn promises well for future relations between India and China for all the continuing difficulties which exist between the two of them.