Think Tank
India and Russia in a Changing World

Thanks to the extraordinary circumstances of 2020, everyone has time to stop, take stock, and discuss important topics in detail (albeit at a distance), perhaps re-evaluate their priorities and formulate a strategy for the future in a significantly changed environment. Not only connections between people, but also relations between countries are being tested for strength under the influence of unforeseen conditions, writes Lydia Kulik, Head of India Studies at the SKOLKOVO Institute for Emerging Markets.

Twenty years ago, in October 2000, a Declaration on Strategic Partnership was signed between Russia and India. Although Russia was not the first country with which India signed such a document, and it was not of an exclusive nature, the relations between the two countries are truly friendly, and today they are characterised by a particularly privileged strategic partnership. At the same time, the discussion about expanding and filling these relations with tangible meanings and specific projects that meet the interests and tasks of both countries has not stopped, and under the present circumstances, it has acquired new relevance.

It is well known that India’s foreign policy is traditionally multi-faceted in nature and at the same time is distinguished by independence and balance, based on the cultural and philosophical traditions of thousands of years of Indian civilisation. Meanwhile, in today’s India, society is actively looking for answers to the question of what exactly the essence of this civilisational tradition is; whether Hinduism is its main stronghold, and if so, how such an immense religious doctrine is open for interpretation, and how its relations with other faiths should be built.

Similar processes are taking place in the field of foreign policy. Since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, immense interest in the new Indian leader has fuelled dozens of publications by Indian and foreign experts on what his government’s foreign policy will be like. However, these were just the speculations and assumptions of theorists. A competent policymaker’s book will be published on September 7, 2020. Its title is The Indian Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World. Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs, an experienced politician and diplomat who has served in the United States, China, Singapore, Czech Republic, Sri Lanka, Hungary and Japan, with experience in the office of the Indian President, found it important and necessary to define India’s foreign policy priorities more clearly. India’s partners, including Russia, are eagerly awaiting the release of this book and hope that it will set out the concept, goals and ways of implementing the foreign policy of India, responding to the strategic objectives of the country, as seen by New Delhi.

Looking from Russia, it is difficult to imagine the innumerable set of all kinds of constructs, alliances, bilateral and multilateral agreements are being proposed to India by various players. In many of them, India decides to take part, seeing the rational kernel that corresponds to its interests, while others are politely rejected. The interest of all the leading powers in the Indian market and the desire to participate in India’s promising future have long led to the fact that even former colonialists literally go to New Delhi with a cap in hand, hoping for its favour. Russia cannot but be concerned that some of the proposals offered to India, for example, the Quad or the alliance of 10 democracies recently proposed by the UK, openly aim to establish a new bloc, aimed at isolating and containing China (as well as Russia). Moscow believes that given current conditions, where a multipolar world has become a reality, not a single serious issue of global dimensions should be considered without the participation of the new centres of influence, particularly India, China, and Brazil, but also others.

Although the official Russian position is that India and China do not need the assistance of mediators to resolve bilateral tensions, it is a matter of disappointment that the long and difficult process of building bridges and developing cooperation between Russia’s two most important partners is now threatened. Indian public opinion is deeply disappointed that India’s greater openness to Chinese investment and goods has not led to greater stability in relations and border security. Delhi is deeply concerned that Beijing’s military infrastructure may also be pulled up behind China’s economic presence in the region of South Asia, close to India’s borders, as well as in a wider regional geography. A close alliance with the United States, which is also now riding the wave of its own anti-China campaign, has long been perceived by the Indian expert community as a credible deterrence against Beijing, guaranteeing India an advantage in its difficult relations with its northern neighbour. There are speculations in India, invariably gloomy, that if Joe Biden comes to power in the United States, intense US pressure on China is likely to ease. At the same time, the public discussions practically avoid noting, that in the trilateral dynamic between the US, India, and China, the focus is not so much about solving India’s problems as it is about containing China through India, which (like Russia), unlike its overseas partners, remains India’s closest neighbour in any event, regardless of what transpires. Amid such difficult conditions of public pressure, the role of Delhi in resolving the current crisis and building relations with Beijing in the future becomes especially important.

Experts note that in Russian politics, there is also a certain lack of clarity in building relations with partners in South Asia, as well as in the strategy regarding the region around Afghanistan, which is most important for the security and economic development of all Greater Eurasia. A similar situation is noticeable in the presence of Russia in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where the emphasis of Russian-Indian cooperation is shifting in connection with the alleged more active participation of India in the economy of the Russian Far East and plans to develop the Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor (VCMC).

Obviously, thanks to the global crisis, it is no longer necessary to look beyond the horizon to see the outlines of the future world order. The objective reality is not only a less predictable world, but also a more permeable one. Many of the dilemmas facing decision-makers are pressing issues of the day, not of the distant future. First of all, they are associated with the digitalisation process. Russia hasn’t been alone in going a significant way in this direction, and has designated the technology sector as one of its priorities, but for India, digitalization is already bringing rapid changes in all spheres of the Indian economy and public life

Issues such as digital sovereignty and cybersecurity, especially in relation to critical national infrastructure, are becoming of paramount importance and will remain important for the foreseeable future. With strong, ambitious national players and effective government regulators, India plans to pursue its own course of autonomy in this area and strives to maintain an independent approach. However, in reality, this can mean difficult decisions for the country’s political leadership and the need to choose between investment and sovereignty. Even before the clashes between the Indian and Chinese border guards in June of this year, amid the economic crisis and the potential decline of Indian assets, New Delhi had decided to be more selective in its approach to direct investment from neighbouring countries. In fact, this measure was aimed at curbing Chinese investment in high-tech Indian companies, which by that time had already reached tangible proportions. The partnership of the ten democratic countries proposed to India by London in the joint development of 5G technologies is noteworthy for the fact that while Delhi took pause to assess the timing and parameters of the deployment of this technology in India, the Indian telecommunications leader declared its readiness to implement 5G projects, including the supply of the necessary equipment. Technical solutions from countries such as Finland, Sweden and South Korea are so far considered too expensive. At the same time, the UK, following the US, has been forced to reduce the scale of its cooperation with China, in which London has invested a lot of effort over the past ten years.

The most important areas for India, which are already undergoing revolutionary changes due to digitalisation and could be determined priority areas of Russian-Indian cooperation in the digital sphere, are fintech, telemedicine, energy efficiency, agriculture, logistics, transport, education, employment regulation and the labour market. Solutions and complementary approaches bringing together Russia’s fundamental scientific expertise and India’s aptitude for scalability should be sought in areas such as artificial intelligence, big data and new materials.

At the same time, in the near future, not only society, as represented by the individual citizens of our countries, faces the task of more active participation in the development of acceptable rules for a new digital life; states and governments face the urgent need to protect their own digital sovereignty and security, and develop effective “rules of the game” on an international scale. Considering the current disunity of the world community, it would seem more realistic to start such a movement with bilateral formats, but this process does not promise to be easy either, as is clearly confirmed by numerous competing proposals facing India today.

The pandemic crisis has significantly increased the relevance of the global sustainable development agenda, particularly the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. This is an important circumstance, since the UN list, in addition to social initiatives, includes points related to energy, responsible consumption, and climate change (and in a broader sense – environmental protection). It’s proven difficult to find a way to promote these concepts, not only among the leaders of Russian corporations, but also with respect to the public. Now it is becoming clear that it is impossible for Russia to remain outside this agenda, and in the near future, the country will not only face the even more acute problem of economic diversification, but also the need to improve the energy efficiency of all Russian exports – from metallurgy to agricultural products. At the same time, India, Moscow’s promising partner in the supply of energy and other natural resources, in the medium and long-term is focused on sustainable development no less than its Western partners. This orientation not only corresponds to India’s fundamental worldview, but is also urgently needed, since it is no longer possible to lift hundreds of millions of Indians socio-economically using older, morally out-dated approaches to interacting with the natural environment without inviting catastrophic ecological changes on a global scale.

All areas of sustainable development, digitalisation issues, as well as the prospects for the development of Russian-Indian relations and the realisation of their economic and business potential are directly related to education issues. On July 29, 2020, the Government of India presented the New Education Policy, developed with the participation of leading Indian experts. This detailed programme of action reflects the importance of education-related challenges facing India today and contains a range of concrete measures to improve its effectiveness. Funding for this sector is planned to increase from 1.7% of GDP to 6% of GDP. Particular emphasis will be placed on early vocational education and training, and the development of the skills needed to develop entrepreneurial youth initiatives – steps to boost employment in the Indian economy and create new jobs. Earlier, support measures for young entrepreneurs were implemented through tax incentives and the widespread institutionalisation of the start-up movement in India. Similar measures are being taken in Russia. In this regard, it is especially important to encourage joint educational programmes and the development of Russian-Indian contacts at the youth level – both in the field of entrepreneurship and in the scientific, academic, cultural and many other areas. Cooperation between the two countries cannot be fully realized without the presence of competent professionals, who know about emerging opportunities and the features of work in Russia and India, who are familiar with the culture, values ​​and primary motivational factors in both nations.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.