Originally Published 2014-12-09 00:00:00 Published on Dec 09, 2014
Russian President Putin's Eurocentric approach and having a Europeanist as his primary foreign policy advisor seem to be impacting on his policy towards Asia. The clout that the Orientalists and Indologists once had in the Kremlin is well and truly gone, and the relationship is that much weaker for it.
Putin's Delhi visit: A new journey of rediscovery

As Russian President Vladimir Putin touches down in Delhi on of December 10, there is much to be optimistic about and much to be pessimistic about. While all may not be well in the relationship, the problems are surmountable but require sustained and consistent effort from the leadership of both countries.

Perhaps the biggest sideshow, which is of almost complete irrelevance, to the Modi-Putin meet is Russia's sale of Mi-35 attack helicopters to Pakistan. While this possibly reflects a rise in Pakistan's standing in Moscow, the Russians are at pains to point out that this is an obsolete weapon system that can be shot out of the air by the Indian Air Force within the first few hours of a war. The sale is just aimed at gaining some leverage, however minuscule, in Islamabad. The problem is that the Indian side has been quick to absorb the triumphalist and mischievous 'Russia switches sides' reports, mostly emanating from Pakistan, rather than absorb the calm reasoned logic emanating from Moscow.

This is a problem not just for the public perception of each other's countries but also for the leadership. Till a few decades ago, India had strong sources of primary news gathering in Moscow, with a large Press detachment permanently camped out in that capital city. The reverse was also equally true. This allowed each country to view the other from their own perspective, unjaundiced by propaganda and views of the outside world - a system that contributed immensely to the warmth that characterised the bilateral relationship.

Yet today, Russia has a largely liberal-owned Press whose primary desire for peer approval rests in America and Europe. And its reportage tends to mirror this trend. No longer is the Russian reporting of India, that of a country genuinely curious about a friend, but it is more editorialising by a set of people whose primary desire is to fit in with their buddies at The New York Times or The Guardian. As a result, Russian reporting on India covers only the worst aspects of this country - corruption, filth and rapes that allows high-society spoilt brats in Moscow to vent moral outrage for a few hours at society dinner parties while gulping down thousand dollar jars of caviar and finding common ground with friends from London and New York.

President Putin clearly hasn't helped the situation either, being fundamentally Eurocentric in his approach and having a Europeanist as his primary foreign policy advisor. The clout that the Orientalists and Indologists once had in the Kremlin is well and truly gone, and the relationship is that much weaker for it. Take, for example, the fact that President Putin intends to spend just 20 hours in India, doesn't have the time to address Parliament or visit Kudankulam. Yet, this is a full 25 per cent improvement over his last two visits to India which lasted exactly 16 hours each. Together, they unmistakably convey the point - Russia and Mr Putin have other priorities.

But, is the Indian side any different? Take, for example, how our print and visual media only have time for two countries - the US and Pakistan. The US is covered obsessively because, much like the Russian Press, the Indian Press also considers essential the stamp of approval from the the US liberal media. So much so that one particularly obnoxious television channel's website has gone so far as to claim that The New York Times is the only news outlet deserving of the title "International Press". Pakistan is covered for the sheer nuisance value of its primary export - terrorism. Our own scholarship of Russia has collapsed significantly over the last two decades and it is telling that Indian coverage of Russia involves recycling the shamelessly jaundiced Russophobic garbage that appears in The New York Times.

Nevertheless, unlike Mr Putin's previous visits to India, this trip has the potential to be different. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has insisted that President Putin jointly open the World Diamond Conference with him in New Delhi. While some more uncharitable observers have said this is reflective of the Prime Minister's inability to move beyond his previous role pf Chief Minister of Gujarat, there are huge economic and geopolitical stakes at play here. Russia exports much of its diamonds to Antwerp, and India imports most of its diamonds from Antwerp. Making the diamond trading relationship direct, not only has the potential to increase India-Russia trade by 25 to 50 per cent in the next five years but also diversifies the relationship beyond defence and breaks the diamond monopoly held by De Beers, the Belgians and the Dutch.

Sadly, President Putin's own obsession with the West means he has failed to understand what Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping clearly have - that New Delhi is under a new management and the old paradigms of inertia and lethargy have been buried. If the diamond bourse is Mr Modi's hesitant first gambit at improving ties, then there needs to be a similar response from the Russian side - bold, out of the box, imaginative. Such a response must also be rooted in the reality that there are deep philosophical differences between the Indian and Russian militaries, which means that the current anchor of our friendship - defence ties - probably won't last beyond another 10 to 15 years, at best.

The clearest case of this has been the categorical failure of the Sukhoi programme where India believed it could take a Russian platform, fuse it with Western electronics, and get the best of both worlds. That dream has come crashing down, and India has realised, with the development of the fifth generation fighter aircraft, that what the Russian consider 'fifth generation' is very different what India believes the term to signify. In effect, India wants to buy oranges and Russia is selling apples.

India's philosophy of war-fighting is also shifting decisively to the West. Maintaining the India-Russia strategic partnership, especially in the nuclear and missile field, will be the great challenge for Indian and Russian diplomacy in the 21st century, especially if India is to avoid being encircled by a Russia-China axis and if Russia is to avoid being smothered by China and playing junior partner. Mr Modi's diamond diplomacy is the first move - a brilliant move, based on optimism. Only time, and Mr Putin, can tell us, if that optimism is valid or misplaced.

Courtesy: The Pioneer

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