Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a quick visit to India on Monday at a time when relations between the two nations are not in the pink of health. Over the past few years, they have, in a manner of speaking, drifted apart.
Russia’s concerns revolve around its investments, and those of its firms, in India. Friction exists over India’s civil nuclear liability law—especially when it comes to the nuclear power plant at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu—and the fate of Russian company Sistema’s investment in India’s telecom sector. These are, however, mere surface concerns. There are deeper forces that have led to a drift in ties between Russia and India.
In the past 60-odd years, two geopolitical axes have operated in South Asia. Much of the international history of the subcontinent can be viewed from the prism of US-Pakistan and India-Russia relations. It is not wholly deterministic to say the loosening of one has led to shifts in the other. After 1991, India has tried hard to build a more robust relationship with the US. For much of the 1990s, this was not at the cost of Russia. But in the first decade of the 21st century, as the US and Pakistan have become cold to each other, ties between India and the US have grown warmer. At the same time, India’s economy and domestic politics have changed greatly. Today, India is a far more liberal country at the societal level. To cite a few examples, it is quite inconceivable that government control of the Internet or of other services will be taken kindly by citizens. Globally, India’s positions on key issues—military intervention in other countries on humanitarian grounds and development of a liberal international trading system—have evolved. Twenty years earlier, Indian policymakers would not have countenanced such positions.
Russia’s international outlook has a tighter fit with its past. Authoritarianism at home has faithfully mirrored its relations and support for autocracies abroad, from Sudan to Syria. Russia’s faith in tighter government control over society (the Internet being just one issue); a general aversion to military intervention against dictators; and a lack of belief in liberal global institutions have, to put it mildly, made India and Russia sit at different places at the international high table.
Notwithstanding all this, it is important that India and Russia take steps to arrest this drift. For one, if India loses Russian support, it will have no Great Power left as a friend in Eurasia. Geopolitically, it is important that this never happen. India should try and break from the shackles of the past, but not at the cost of a long-standing friendship.
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