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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 48, November 16, 2013

India-Russia bhai bhai was working well. Is our US-leaning PM risking it?

Tuesday 19 November 2013, by T J S George


Manmohan Singh, considered ineffective and unassertive, was noticeably effective and assertive on one issue: India moving closer to the United States. He succeeded so well that today India is seen as a strategic partner of the US in the Asia-Pacific theatre. This gives useful leverage to the US. What does it give to India? Certainly no leverage vis-à-vis Pakistan; the US has just re-started its massive economic aid to the country and continues to lend an attentive ear to renewed Pakistani pleas that it should mediate in Kashmir.

More worrying is the shadow India’s newfound closeness to the US casts on its relationship with Russia, a long-time partner, and China, an ambitious hegemonic power with which India must necessarily have healthy working relations.

Manmohan Singh, a much-travelled Prime Minister, has just completed a trip that took in both Russia and China in one go. The ceremonials were impeccable. But the hard facts remained: Russia now has reasons to wonder about India’s directions while China will see India as part of America’s policy of strategically encircling it. As for America, it only wants more from India (trade-wise, for example). We are losers at all ends.

If we lose what Manmohan Singh himself called our “privileged strategic relationship” with Russia, the consequences can be grave. That Russia has been our largest defence equipment supplier since independence is an interesting fact.

Neither Britain as the retiring colonial master nor the US as the most powerful democracy of the time seemed all that interested in the new country’s needs. But Stalinist Soviet Union considered it worthwhile to help India build its basic muscles.

The qualitative nature of the relationship that developed was more significant than its quantitative dimensions. Russia was always willing to share strategic military technology with India. With arrangements for joint research and development, the two countries are engaged in building fifth generation fighter aircraft and multirole transport jets. Already the Brahmos cruise missile, the T-90 tank and the Sukhoi fighter planes exist as living symbols of this cooperation. This was happening when the US opposed technology transfer and refused help even with cryogenic engines for India’s space programme. It’s a different matter that India’s space technology advanced far enough to make it a leader in the field.

There were of course irritants along the way. The Gorshkov-Vikramaditya’s delays extended from 2004 to 2013, the costs escalating from $ 974 million to $ 2.34 billion. India’s insistence on civil liability clauses prevented a deal on Kudankulam’s third and fourth reactors even on Manmohan Singh’s latest visit. But these are nothing compared to the way Russia stood by India on critical issues. When military defence had become impossible without satellite navigation system and it was clear that the US would never help in the event of an India-Pakistan showdown, Russia provided access to its Glonass system in 2011. India’s military facilities in Tajikstan bordering Afghanistan would have been impossible without facilitation by Russia. Such are the advantages that are put at risk by Manmohan Singh’s one-dimensional approach to global strategising.

China presents a study in contrast. With its ambitions to become the world’s leading superpower, China would like to keep India tied up in local disputes. Its military buildup along the Himalayas, its all-out collaboration with Pakistan and its economic bridge-building with states like Sri Lanka have achieved this goal to some extent. However, China’s ambitions are a cause for concern for Russia, too, especially with the increasing flow of Chinese migrants to Russia’s far-flung eastern Siberian province. A politically savvy India would have used this factor to its advantage by forging new ties with Russia and Japan. Instead, we see China militarily strategising with Russia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and through joint military ties with the Central Asian countries. New Big Games are afoot—and the signals coming out of Delhi suggest that it is unable to cope. It’s a long way from the days when India led the non-aligned group that altered the way the world saw itself. When will we get a leadership we deserve?

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