|Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inspects the honour guard at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport on Sunday while Russian troops take part in a joint military training exercise in Rajasthan. (AFP)
Moscow, Oct. 20: A blustery breeze, rolling clouds and leafless trees delicately filigreed against a late autumn sky greeted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh this afternoon as he arrived here on the first leg of his last major foreign trip — the chill offering not just a balm after the heat and dust of the fractious politics back home, but also the promise of warmth that an old friendship affords.
There are no big-bang announcements expected when Manmohan and Vladimir Putin meet tomorrow — no nuclear deal, no mega defence agreement, no big energy pact. And unlike George W. Bush, Putin is not known to be the Prime Minister’s hero or best buddy. He is unlikely to be told that the people of India “deeply love him”.
|Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, at Vnukovo
airport on Sunday. (PTI)
Yet the significance of the visit lies in its very routine-ness; the big takeaway is that there are no big takeaways —just a steady, stable relationship that renews itself bit by bit every year, year upon year.
Russia, for India, is something like an old sweater — a bit frayed at the edges, misshapen by repeated washings (and a particularly cataclysmic whirl back in 1990), not very trendy, but for all that, still valuable and trustworthy.
The foundations of the relationship may lie in the days of the Cold War when India became close to the Soviet Union and every taxi driver on the boulevards of this magnificent city was rumoured to dance to Raj Kapoor’s Main Awara Hoon.
But what gives the bilateral relations heft today is not any “back in the USSR” nostalgia but a much more hardnosed, pragmatic outlook that draws from the past without being tied down to it.
Indian diplomats who have served in the Soviet Union and then Russia concede that the 1990s were a period of turbulence, of “transition” for both countries.
The collapse of the Soviet Union shook the world, and for much longer than ten days. Even as the “successor state” of Russia was beginning to find its feet from the debris around it, India began its own economic reforms that including jettisoning the old ways of doing trade and business and diplomacy.
From an almost exclusive dependence on the Soviet Union for defence equipment and armaments, India started “diversifying” its suppliers, much to the chagrin of Moscow. On its part, Russia was going through its own identity crisis.
“Russia has always been torn between its Eurasian and European identity. Sometimes it sees itself as part of the greater European homeland, and sometimes it sees itself as an Asian power, a Pacific power,” an official said, pointing out that in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, Eurocentrism had come to the fore and that Putin himself was much more westward-looking in his initial years.
But Putin has evolved (partly out of a sense of betrayal by western Europe, which tried to whittle down Russia’s area of influence by weaning away former Soviet republics) and become much more interested in reviving Russia’s old ties with Asia.
The renewed India-Russia ties can be traced back to Putin’s visit to India in October 2000 when the two countries signed the “Declaration on the India-Russia Strategic Partnership”, under which several institutionalised dialogue mechanisms were set up “to ensure regular interaction and follow-up on cooperation activities”.
Since 2000, India and Russia have capped these dialogue mechanisms with an annual dialogue at the highest level, alternately held in New Delhi and Moscow. Tomorrow’s summit is the 14th in the series, the tenth to be attended by Manmohan Singh — five of them in Moscow.
These dialogues not only cement bilateral ties in traditional areas such as defence cooperation, space cooperation, atomic energy, science and technology et al, but of late have become important in achieving “strategic congruence” in dealing with international and regional issues.
Put simply, India and Russia (together with China, to a large degree) are forming a loose partnership in working out responses to volatile situations in Syria, Iran and, most of all, Afghanistan.
The possible fallout of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan next summer is thus likely to figure high on Manmohan’s conversations in Moscow tomorrow and in Beijing later this week, sources said, probably much higher than any defence or energy deal.