After a whirlwind tour of the United States by Indian PM Narendra Modi, voices within Russia are suggesting a change of diplomatic strategy for India.

President Barack Obama (right) and India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) said on Tuesday, Sept. 30, that "it is time to set a new agenda" between their countries, addressing concerns that the world's two largest democracies have grown apart. Photo: AP / Evan Vucci

As Russia searches for new partners around the world, any sign that a potential partner country may be siding with the West is now a reason for consternation. Take the example of India: its Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently visited the United States, where he was treated at times like a rock star. Already, the Russian media has suggested that the visit could trigger a response from Moscow.

At first glance, the development of relations between India and the United States applies only to those two countries. Narendra Modi, as the leader of an independent and influential state, is free to make visits, meet with foreign politicians, and agree on India’s cooperation with other countries on the basis of national interests. Interests of partners may be considered, but they will always remain secondary.

In Russia, however, not all agree. As columnist Dmitry Kosyrev wrote, “The main question many Russians are asking is with whom does India stand – with the United States or with Russia.” Although it’s true that at the same time he made a reservation that this question does not make sense. Concerns about India’s diplomatic preferences were the reason the media so fervently responded to the news that Russia had ceded its place to the U.S. as the main arms supplier to India. In response to the development of a military cooperation proposal between India and the U.S., some hotheads in Russia suggested “compensating for their losses in India through the traditional American weapons market,” including Pakistan.

If we follow this logic, any attempt by India to develop relations with the United States is a threat to Russian interests in India, and any contract made by an American company in India is a blow to Russian business. 

Both the proposed positions are extreme points of view. The truth must lie somewhere in between. Without a doubt, India will develop its foreign policy in accordance with its own national interests. Narendra Modi and Barack Obama will engage in bilateral relations according to the needs of the two countries. In general, Indian-American relations should be viewed indifferently by Russia.

Reacting bitterly to any project agreed on by India and the United States would be not only a waste of time and resources for Russia, but also the best way to ruin relations with India. Any attempts to take revenge on India for a particular contract they have with the United States would cause even greater harm to Russian-Indian relations. Recent history has shown that within the power structures of Russia, there are those who, in response to a loss on the Indian market, have seriously considered the possibility of folding or freezing cooperation with India in some areas and increasing efforts in the Pakistani direction.

Although the relationship between India and the United States should be viewed indifferently by Russia, it still should follow developments carefully in order to learn from them and not repeat mistakes made by New Delhi and Washington. The recent visit of Narendra Modi to the United States provides fertile ground for thought.

One of the greatest strengths of India-U.S. relations is the strong tie between the people of the two countries. To hold meetings on the streets of Moscow with the Prime Minister of India, similar to the ones that have taken place in New York or Washington, would be very difficult. Compared to the United States, Russia remains less attractive for travelers on business, students, and tourists from India. The number of Indians that have taken root in Russian soil is small. There are even fewer Russians in India.

Traditionally, the difference between India and the U.S., on the one hand, and the difference between India and Russia, on the other, is due to historical reasons, the language barrier, and climatic conditions. But there are other, often neglected problems, including the passive stances taking by governments in Russia (mostly) and India (to a lesser extent) in supporting the attempts of small and medium enterprises to develop business relations between the two countries and the efforts of scientific communities of Russia and India to establish contacts with each other.

There have been some examples of Russian companies opposing the entry of Indian companies on the Russian automotive market, for fear of losing their already precarious position (which nevertheless has still been lost to companies from China and South Korea). There is a surprising lack of an active program of research and student exchanges between Russia and India. These exchanges, in fact, are limited to irregular trips by Russian Indologists to India and Indian Russianists here. Russian institutes and think tanks are clearly inferior in activity in India than their American competitors. That the Russian voice is almost not heard at all in India is due to the fault of Russia itself.

The lack of a solid foundation in the relations between the people of India and Russia does not allow us to repeat the words of the “Chalein Saath Saath: Forward Together We Go” Indo-US Declaration: “Every day, in myriad ways, our cooperation fortifies a relationship that matches the innumerable ties between our peoples, who have produced works of art and music, invented cutting-edge technology, and responded to crises across the globe.”

The second thing about Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States that catches the eye is India’s zealous interest in promoting the participation of American companies in its industrial growth. It is not just about the sharing of investment and technology, but also the joint development of technology in both the civil and military fields.

Like the United States, Russia has long been a visible presence in the Indian market. In some areas, Russia has a much stronger position in India than the U.S. – take, for example, the field of nuclear energy. Joint technology development is also not alien to Russian-Indian cooperation. The Brahmos missile is a good example. Russia's position in India is strong, but it is strong only in certain niches. Prospects for the development of Russian-Indian cooperation are limited to these niches. If tomorrow Narendra Modi offers Russian companies active participation in the industrial growth of India, many of them wouldn’t be competitive compared to American or Chinese companies.

Even in those niches in the Indian market where Russia today feels quite confident, tomorrow it may begin to lose contract after contract. The main reason would be not because of scheming by third parties but the politics of India itself. The September 25th launch by Narendra Modi of the “Make in India” global initiative is not just another campaign. It is a national strategy, which for many years will determine the development of India’s trade and economic relations with other countries. As part of this strategy, India will use these connections for the development of technologies and liberation from the need to import products. Moreover, India is committed to becoming a competitive exporter in the world. To maintain or increase its level of cooperation with India, Russia cannot be limited to those niches where it now holds a strong position and to the technologies that form the basis of the Russian-Indian cooperation in the civil and military spheres.

In short, Russia should not worry about the recent visit of Narendra Modi to the United States. Instead, Russia should worry about the current weaknesses in Russian-Indian cooperation, all of which ultimately may lead to the lowering of Russia’s value in the eyes of India’s business and government leaders.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.