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India-Russia summit: An open house of friendship

Last updated on: December 15, 2011 17:15 IST

Pious pre-summit homilies cannot hide the ugly truth that cooperation in energy security is going at snail's pace despite it being a strategic area for India. The high hopes raised 3 years ago during the visit by Vladimir Putin to Delhi remain unfulfilled, says M K Bhadrakumar.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in his statement on Thursday prior to the departure for Moscow that the annual summit meeting with the Russian leadership has traditionally provided a 'tremendous impetus' to the bilateral relationship. A yardstick is readily available to measure the upcoming event in Moscow.

Notably, Dr Singh pitch-forked international issues as the leitmotif of this summit. This is a bold, unconventional approach, because bilateral issues ought to have received primacy and it also is the usual diplomatic norm.

Clearly, the challenge at the Moscow summit will be to navigate the relationship through an arid patch. The paradox is that there are no serious contradictions as such in the political ties and yet somehow the verve keeps oozing out of the relationship.

It happens when the content of the relationship remains stagnant for long. The best thing would be to roll up the sleeves and do something about adding greater content to the relationship. After all, there is no substitute to content in a forward-looking relationship.

But Dr Singh, although an economist, is instead taking the route of rhetoric and purple prose. The prospect is dim for India and Russia to meet the trade target of $20 billion by 2015 -- current level is $9 billion.

Much depends on the cooperation in the field of nuclear energy to boost trade. But the signing of a contract for Koodankulam 3 and 4 nuclear reactors is a remote possibility.

 To be fair to the Indian government, Dr Singh's dream of creating ambitious power generation capacity through nuclear energy for 'rising India' -- built around the US-India nuclear deal of 2008 -- is itself floundering.

Another jamboree

India has scaled down the ambitious target of 63000 MWe to be achieved from nuclear energy by 2032 to just 27480 MWe; even short-term prognosis of 20000 MWe by 2020 stands scaled down to 14850 MWe.

And, at the sites where Russian reactors are being installed or are to be installed -- Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu and Haripur in West Bengal -- local activists are agitating against the projects. There are different interpretations -- whether Russia's competitors have triggered these agitations or whether Fukushima has generated far greater public awareness about nuclear safety standards.

Suffice to say, Dr Singh's government, which is hobbling on many fronts, just doesn't have the political clout to push through a bold decision on Koodankulam 3 and 4.

Woven into this is also whether Koodankulam 3 and 4 would come under India's nuclear liability law and the overall ambiguity over the state of play with regard to the scope for transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to India.

The Russian side invited India to have equity participation in a production facility for refining and reprocessing uranium but the United States apparently takes a dim view of it and Dr Singh's government is dithering.

Thus, the new reality is that the Indian-Russian nuclear energy cooperation is steadily, inexorably getting linked to the progress on the India-US cooperation.

US deputy secretary of state William Burns's visit to Delhi in the run-up to Dr Singh's departure for Moscow underscored that there is only one way out of the impasse -- the American way. Therefore, until Dr Singh's government amends even further the rules it formulated under the Nuclear Liability Law, there can't be any Koodankulam 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8.

India-Russia nuclear cooperation is stuck. Yet, cooperation in nuclear energy is the flagship of the entire economic cooperation. Without it, the vacuity of India-Russia economic ties stands exposed.

The big question is why Delhi didn't anticipate this impasse. More important, if Delhi could anticipate it even without Burns reminding it of the ABC of cooperation in nuclear energy, it had no Plan B to ensure Dr Singh's Moscow tour doesn't turn out to be another jamboree.    

So, Indian officials stumbled upon the good old Soviet-era recipe -- a slew of high-sounding agreements have been lined up for signature.

Pious homilies

How serious are the Indian officials? The Indian foreign trade culture still remains imbued with herd mentality despite its exposure to globalisation. The officials ultimately plant the signposts. Alas, the composition of the business delegation accompanying Dr Singh to Moscow exposes that the Indian private sector is still to be persuaded.

It badly reflects on our seriousness. Doesn't the Indian embassy in Moscow report how purposefully Russia organises its economic summits? The very same western leaders whom Dr Singh courts make a beeline for Moscow seeking opportunities in bolstering trace and investment.

The German or Chinese leadership would meet the Kremlin leaders twice or thrice annually in stand-alone bilateral meetings. Simply put, Indian officials need to show far greater drive and commitment to the India-Russia relationship.

Even the public sector is showing inertia. For example, India is still reveling in the glory of cooperation with Russia in the Sakhalin I project. But what happened to energy cooperation in the 10 years since Sakhalin I?

Pious pre-summit homilies -- 'Russia is a key partner in our quest for energy security' -- cannot hide the ugly truth that cooperation in energy security is going at snail's pace despite it being a strategic area for India and notwithstanding Russia's stature as a Colossus on the world energy scene. The high hopes raised 3 years ago during the visit by Vladimir Putin to Delhi remain unfulfilled.

No amount of blame game -- connectivity is lacking, banking facilities are unsatisfactory, taxation problems are irritating, language barrier poses obstacle, etc -- can detract from the truth that a sense of urgency is lacking in Delhi with regard to the Russian market and the bleak performance stands out in comparison with the high priority that Berlin and Beijing or Seoul and Paris would attach to trade and investment with Russia.

Of course, defence cooperation remains a green pasture. It is still very substantial ($20 billion or so) but how long can this locomotive of defence cooperation chug along? It is losing steam. Russia is gradually becoming a partner in certain niche areas of the defence sector.  

Strong vested interests have grown in Delhi's arms bazaar in recent years. Besides, this is one area that catches the American eagle's eye for giving stimulus to the US-India 'defining partnership'. 

An open house

Unsurprisingly, in this overall dismal situation, the temptation is to impart a larger-than-life look to the Indian-Russian summit. The Indian diplomats are duly drawing attention away from the drab issues of trade and investment to the seamless, intangible vistas of global politics as the Moscow summit's real agenda.

'The world is witnessing a profound transformation and a shift in the global balance of power. Our [India-Russia] relationship serves as an anchor of peace and stability during this transition phase… Together India and Russia can help shape global responses.' That's really heady stuff -- except that we live in a real world.

For argument's sake, will Dr Singh be interested in standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his Russian counterpart to pre-empt another Libya-type military intervention by the US-led western alliance in Syria? I seriously doubt it.

Again, from the Indian viewpoint, Russia's affirmation of the imperative need of a 'neutral' Afghanistan is undoubtedly a factor of regional stability. But External Affairs Minister S M Krishna would have a serious problem uttering the word 'neutrality', which might be construed as disapproval of the US move to establish military bases in Afghanistan. Although Dr Singh singled out Afghanistan as a major topic of discussion in Moscow, he will also dance around the dangerous word 'neutral'.

Indeed, Russia has re-emerged on the world scene as an effective player at a formative period in the international system. Its kinetic moves apropos strategic stability, the Middle East situation, etc. impact world politics.

Russia's robust 'return' to Central Asia; its accent on the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and its support for India's full membership of that body; its insistence on a diplomatic solution to the Iran problem; its repudiation of the US's projection of the NATO as a global security organisation; its emphasis on the primacy of the United Nations in conflict resolution; its abhorrence of the use of force; its insistence on adherence to international law; its opposition to the deployment of the US's missile defence systems across Asia and Europe; its advocacy of a regional security architecture for Asia-Pacific; its consistent underscoring of BRICS as a key locus of influence on the world stage -- all these are, admittedly, of immense consequence to India's vital interests and core concerns.

Yet, the heart of the matter is how far Delhi wishes to harmonise with these Russian initiatives, although, as Dr Singh would see, Moscow keeps an open house for its Indian friends.

M K Bhadrakumar