When it comes to Russia, the Indian imagination remains trapped in the sepia-tint of a Raj Kapoor film, indelibly associated with the Soviet-era India-Russia friendship. It was perhaps a bit of this magic that floated to the surface when the prime minister, Narendra Modi, alluded to the two countries being best friends — something even a child in India knows about. What an Indian child may not know, but what both Mr Modi and Vladimir Putin, meeting on the side-lines of the BRICS summit in Brazil, are aware of is that the India-Russia friendship is all about hard-nosed realism. It has been that way since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when India’s pragmatism led it to seek friendships further ashore, with the United States of America and Israel among other nations. That has never meant India spurning Russia or biting the hand that fed it the wherewithal to build up its nuclear, defence, space and heavy industry sectors when few others were willing to do so. Russia continues to be India’s biggest weapons supplier and source of relatively cheap defence supplies. Intermittent bad blood over cost escalations and delays over these supplies have not harmed the fabric of the relationship. Russia remains integral to India’s exploration of nuclear capability to meet its energy needs and one of the largest suppliers of crude oil. Given the turmoil in the Middle East, India is bound to seek closer ties with Russia to secure its energy needs and to firm up its relationship with resource-rich central Asian countries.
It was this pragmatism in matters of international diplomacy that led India to defend Russia’s “legitimate interests” in Ukraine during the recent crisis in Crimea. Russia, too, has defended India’s interests in Kashmir every time Pakistan has sought to exploit the issue in international fora. The bonhomie has not stopped the nations from going their own ways in other matters though. While India and Russia both abstained from voting on the United Nations resolution on Libya, Russia vetoed the UN resolution on Syria that India supported. Both nations have sought to calibrate their relationships with China. With its emerging economy, India will remain a much-sought-after ally for a sanctions-hit Russia, which will continue to have its own attractions for India. That may or may not make them best friends.