Moscow and Delhi may have taken each other for granted for too long. Both sides are now at a point where decisive action is required to move the relationship forward.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, December 24, 2015. Photo: AP

Given the long history of friendship between Moscow and Delhi, the decision of the Kremlin to carry out joint military exercises with Pakistan on Sept. 24 has surprised many in both India and Russia. Pakistan is a long-time rival of India and a nation that has always been a focal point of Indian foreign policy, so Russia-Pakistan joint military exercises naturally worry Delhi.

These developments show that there is a clear lack of expertise on India in Russia’s policymaking circles threatening to put the future of the Russia-India relationship at risk. A lack of understanding between Russia and India was one of the key problems raised by representatives of leading Indian think tanks that visited Russia Direct in Moscow on Friday, Sept. 23. The experts exchanged their views on the current problems facing the partnership between the long-time allies and discussed steps to make the relationship more mutually beneficial.

Accommodating each other’s interests

In geopolitics, Moscow and Delhi would appear to share a great deal in common. At least, India didn't lambast Russia for its policy in Ukraine and saw its campaign in Syria as a decisive action, explained Jayant Prasad, director general of the Institute of Defense Studies.

With Asia-Pacific becoming more and more important as a venue for future economic growth, the long-time allies should do more to coordinate their efforts in this part of the world. Hemant Krishan Singh, director general at the Delhi Policy Group, argued that the two countries need to think about finding a way to work together in the Asia-Pacific region.

Russia and India are well positioned to balance the role of powers in this region in the name of stability, as well as restore the rules-based order that is being put at risk with ongoing territorial disputes. According to Singh, Russia has underinvested in the region for too long, and now is the time to make the best of the opportunities available.

The latest controversy with the Pakistan-Russia military exercises shows that being able to understand each other’s interests is key to ensuring the partnership moves forward“There have never been any problems. Now we see a problem being created. We start with a huge advantage – we should use that,” said T.C.A. Rangachari, distinguished fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation. According to him and many of his colleagues, the lack of knowledge about each other is the direct result of a lack of media coverage in both countries.

Lack of media coverage and people-to-people exchanges

While both governments need to listen to experts, the media’s role cannot be undervalued because it is this information that plays a key role in forming expert opinions about issues.

Manjeet Nari Kripalani, executive director at the Mumbai-based Gateway House and a former journalist, pointed out that “today journalists are not able to do the things they used to do.” With no full-time Indian correspondent in Russia, as noted by the head of Eurasian Studies at Observer Research Foundation Nandan Unnikrishnan, it is virtually impossible to talk about any substantial coverage of news from Russia.

Moreover, the situation with Russian media is quite similar. At the moment, there are very few Russian journalists reporting from India and all the media channels that worked there since the period of the Soviet Union are being shut down.

What seems to be a practical solution to decrease the information gap is to boost the number of exchanges between countries’ expert and media communities, experts agreed. This should not be an annual practice, but a regular one with permanent contacts between think tanks being established, suggested Petr Topychkanov, associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Prasad supported this initiative and expressed readiness to host any researchers willing to visit India for up to six months.

Boosting interest in business

Russia has traditionally been associated in the Indian public’s minds with high tech, but the question of commercialization of the vast technological achievements of Soviet and Russian scientists has always been an issue. Here an opportunity still exists for Russia and India to work together.

“This is a marriage waiting to happen,” says Nalin Surie, director general of the Indian Council for World Affairs. India could help Russian companies to address the problem of bringing their innovations to the market. “Without the economic leg the partnership will not go forward,” the expert added.

His colleague, Baldev Raj, director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, sees wonderful opportunities to work together towards the Industry 4.0 vision for changing the trajectory of global technological development. Here the cooperation between Russian and Indian innovators could pay huge dividends.

Read Russia Direct's report: "How to Warm Up Russia's Ties with India"

Meanwhile, Yulia Potemkina, a member of Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation, agrees that the potential of Russia-India trade and economic ties is far from being implemented and the reason for this seems to be the course that was pursued in Russian foreign policy twenty years ago when the relationship with India experienced a downturn. Today there is a gradual revival of this partnership, which requires some time.

“All ties established during the Soviet period were simply destroyed. Today we are making steps to restore these ties, first and foremost, in the economic aspect of the partnership,” she told Russia Direct.

She points out that over the last years Indian businessmen were granted special conditions with regard to receiving work permissions and doing business in Russia as well as special treatment of those working in cross-border territories, for example, in the Far East. One of the recent positive examples was a trip taken by representatives of Indian tourism firms to Russia for the purpose of examining the possibility of setting up their branches in the country.

There are steps being made by the Indian side to ease the visa regime and create more favorable conditions for Russian companies to establish their offices in India. So, both sides are making efforts, but the key obstacle seems to be financial. This, in turn, might be overcome by the emergence of new financial structures, such as the BRICS Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

“I think that project financing will give a new impulse to Russia-India relations,” Potemkina says, expressing her high hopes and the hopes of Indian bankers and businessmen working in Russia.

Topychkanov suggests that for now, it seems rational to work in areas where progress is possible. This primarily concerns cooperation in the military and nuclear sectors, which has been taking place for many years. With plans on not only building nuclear power plants in India, but also starting to work collectively with India on building plants in third countries, this might turn out to play a positive role for the future of the relationship.

It is quite clear that Delhi and Moscow have taken their partnership for granted for too long. Now it’s time to take active steps to revive communication channels and come up with ways to work together on common geopolitical and economic goals.