Alexander M Kadakin, the Russian Ambassador in New Delhi, once described India as a “rich fiancé with many bridegrooms” while commenting on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s international balancing act. Kadakin believes that the main aim of PM Modi’s foreign policy is not only to meet India’s global aspirations, but also to make the South Asian nation an economic giant.
On the sidelines of recently concluded G-20 Summit in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, the Indian premier held separate meetings with Chinese, Russian, American, Australian, Japanese, Turkish and Saudi leaders, thus, giving an impression that he was seeking all the big global powers’ hands.
Upon his arrival in New Delhi, Modi hinted that India would soon sign major defence deals with its “old friend” Russia. The indication is surprising, as it has been made just a week after India allowed the US to use its Army, Air Force and Naval bases for military purposes. India’s decision to bolster defence ties with America might have disheartened Russia. But, Modi has a different game plan. Time and again, the PM has made clear that India will have to get over its Pakistan obsession and play a greater role on the world stage as a firm and responsible power. And for that, India will have to maintain close ties with Russia. While the US has always tried to maintain “business” ties with both India and Pakistan simultaneously, the friendship between India and Russia is exceptional in a world of fickle loyalties. For more than 50 years, people of the two countries have had warm feelings towards each other. That is why PM Modi said (during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s December 2014 visit to India): “Even a child in India, if asked to say who is India’s best friend, will reply it is Russia because Russia has been with India in times of crisis.”
In Hangzhou, the Indian officials reassured their Russian counterparts that New Delhi, despite strengthening defence ties with the US, would take every necessary step to boost the traditional strategic bilateral partnership. According to sources close to the Indian Defence Ministry, New Delhi plans to start negotiations with Moscow for mega defence projects soon. A senior ministry official, who wished to remain anonymous, said on Tuesday that India wants to develop the futuristic Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) and Kamov Ka-226T light utility helicopters jointly with Russia under the PM’s ‘Make in India’ initiative. India also plans to acquire five S-400 Triumf advanced air defence missile systems and a nuclear-powered submarine from Russia. The official told the press that the two governments would discuss the issue during 16th India-Russia Military Technical Co-operation Working Group meeting in the Indian capital on September 7-8.
Asked why the Modi government is trying to strike a fine balance between the two erstwhile Cold War rivals, the Defence Ministry official said that India has become a part of the great global military game because of the changing geopolitical landscape. For India, he explained, it has become necessary to maintain cordial ties with both Russia and the US. Russia has been India’s biggest arms supplier for decades, as Moscow has sold New Delhi over USD 45 billion worth of arms since early 1960s. However, the US has overtaken Russia in bagging Indian arms deals over the last four years. Since 2007, Washington has supplied defence equipment worth over USD 15 billion to New Delhi.
The official admitted that India was facing different types of problems while dealing with the two super powers. New Delhi is unhappy with Moscow for not sticking to delivery schedules, jacking up costs midway, hurdles in technology transfer and unreliable spare support. But, India knows that only Russia can help it with strategic projects, such as nuclear-powered submarines. On the other hand, India is unhappy with the US for its stringent technology export licensing regime. However, New Delhi hopes that India’s designation as a ‘major defence partner’ will make the tech transfer smoother and faster in the coming days. The rest will depend on PM Modi’s international balancing act.