Indian solo in St Petersburg

St Petersburg, Russia’s northern and unofficial capital, witnessed last weekend, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s investment show of an European scale. Modi has also covered Germany, Spain and France. Russia became a key venue, since Modi (and a huge Indian delegation) has been granted a title of special guests at the St Petersburg international economic forum (SPIEF).

That was not only a bilateral Russo-Indian event. Modi was addressing a mixed audience where US corporations (140 of them) outclassed the rest. His message was: A new economic superpower is born. India today has a government with a powerful voter’s base, capable of long-term strategy. That strategy works. India is being elevated in all kinds of international ratings. It has become the fastest-growing economy among the top ones. The nation promotes its programme “Make in India”. It also has 500 big cities in need of modern, hi-tech sewage and water supply systems, and 2,500km of the Ganges river to clean. But, most of all, it welcomes top-grade, hi-tech investments.

There was a time when Russia (the Soviet Union) was lucky to create, single-handedly, the base for Indian heavy industry, itself becoming a technology exporter of global scale in the process. Today, there is no single nation that could dream of dominating Indian development plans; indeed, Russia and India are now equals by their annual search results gross national product (around US$2 trillion [RM8.54 trillion], both).

Emergence of a global and powerful India looks the world’s most interesting event since 1990s “discovery” of China as a new economic miracle. China is everywhere in the world today, but now the same can be said about its Western neighbour.

Russia stays as India’s trusted friend, although Modi has a lot of other friends now. But 70 years of close relations have not been in vain. Moscow today is in a perfect position to become India’s key partner in its plans to become world’s hi-tech power. And we saw it in St Petersburg, where Moscow and Delhi had signed 19 economic agreements.

By now, India has invested US$8 billion in Russia, mostly in oil and gas. Russia’s investments in India are exactly a half of that. Modi suggested correcting the tilt, reminding of his slogan “Make in India”.

Atomic energy comes first. Two reactors are at work at Kudankulam power station, and agreement for a start of work on two others has just been signed at the forum. Ten other reactors are coming. Mind you, in India they’ll tell you these will be indigenous Indian reactors. And it’s true, since the agreement provides for creating jointly an industry with all kind of research and a future capability to build completely Indian power stations.

So it’s mostly about technology transfer. Same goes for military spheres. In the 1990s, when both India and Russia went through a transformation, sales of Russia weapons stayed, maybe, the only thread that linked the former closest friends. But now, it’s about joint development and production of hi-tech systems, not just sales.

The two nations produce jointly, on Indian soil, military helicopters, frigates and a miraculous ultra-sound BrahMos cruise missile. More projects are coming. Again, we see a massive technology transfer leading to a strong upgrade of India’s military research and production. BrahMos — being acquired by both armed forces — is rumoured to be a truly joint effort, not a Russian project adjusted to Indian needs.

Let’s look at the Russo-Indian vision of their future. It’s about mutual investments in nanotechnology, robotics, supercomputers, communications and the new materials. You cannot be more hi-tech.

That’s the result of many years of joint search of the fields where two economies complement each other. To think that the start of that search led to a sad acceptance of the fact that trade (just trade) leads nowhere, since we don’t produce things interesting to our very different consumer societies. Trade is still low, not even reaching US$8 billion annually. But everything that is sophisticated goes well.

I remembered these bad years (mostly the 1990s) when one joint governmental commission after another struggled with total incompatibility of our economies. Everything was a problem. Banks did not know each other, customers had no idea what was basmati rice or salted cucumbers. Even military hardware orders were delayed by years due to bureaucratic glitches on both sides. Indian “Westerners” were saying that Russia is the obsolete past, only the West is a desirable partner. Russian “Westerners” were telling their audiences that India is a country of one billion beggars and is no partner for the glorious New Russia.

And all that time, a stubborn “Indian lobby” inside Russia was plodding on, together with some same-minded Indians. Governments changed, minds cleared, and a 70-year old friendship has suddenly bore unexpected fruits.

  • Dmitry Kosyrev is an author of 8 novels and a book of short stories as well as a columnist for 2 Moscow publications. Orientalist by education (Moscow University), he has a special love for Malaysia.