Tatyana Shaumyan, head of the Indian Studies Center, shares her views on Russian-Indian relations: their history, prospects, and primary areas of interaction. RIA Novosti’s Samir Shakhbaz interviews her in the days preceding President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Delhi.
Ms Shaumyan, good afternoon. Let’s get straight down to business, shall we? What do should we expect from President Medvedev’s upcoming visit to India for it to be considered a success?
“It’s bound to be successful, in theory. With the current state of bilateral relations, I believe that each of these visits may be deemed historic, to a degree. This year our bilateral relations have seen several major events. I am referring to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s important talks in March on further expansion of trade and economic relations. The recent meeting of the joint commission on military-technical cooperation has also focused on highly important issues. Other important agreements have been drafted in order to be signed over the course of President Medvedev’s visit, and we believe that they are quite likely to be ratified.”
India is a mysterious country. In the Soviet era, it was probably one of our truest friends and allies. The attempt on Indira Ghandi’s life was seen as a national tragedy in the Soviet Union. Later on, in the 1990s, Russia felt that it was losing India as the country began drifting toward the West. What is the focus of India’s foreign policy now?
“I think it was not so much about Russia losing India as India losing Russia. In the 1990s, Russia had a lot on its plate in terms of domestic policy and could not focus on India the way it did in the Soviet era. Looking at Russian-Indian trade over time, one can see that it peaked at $5.5 billion per year in the Soviet era and dropped to $1.2 billion in the first few years after the collapse of the USSR. It began to recover in the mid-1990s. I remember President Boris Yeltsin stalling before finally making a long-awaited trip to India in January 1993. That was a big breakthrough. The two countries signed a twenty year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, an agreement on military-technical cooperation, and other important documents. Relations had stabilized by the year 2000, when India and Russia agreed to be strategic partners. That agreement formalized the status of our relations.”
One gets the impression that our cooperation largely rests on military-technical cooperation. What other benefits does India get from Russia or Russia from India?
“Energy resources are an important point of common interest. I believe that we share vast prospects for cooperation there. Oil and gas supplies to India may be a problem, however, because laying a cross-border pipeline to China or any other country on Russian borders is one thing, but with India, it’s more difficult.”
How about nuclear fuel?
“There we go. With nuclear fuel, I think, Russia has a certain competitive edge because we are actively participating in building India’s peaceful nuclear industry. Russian contractors are building reactors at Kudankulam in southern India, and I can say that the number of reactors grows with every official visit of top Russian officials. This cooperation is mutually beneficial: nuclear fuel is more environmentally friendly than coal, which is India’s most abundant mineral resource.”
I am now going to ask a question that may provoke an hour-long lecture. What is India like these days? Isn’t it a country of deep contrasts, where high technology exists side by side with extreme poverty – perhaps worse than anywhere else in the world? Would you describe it as a developed or an emerging economy?
“It is indeed difficult to give a short answer. When you visit India, or read about it, or see it on TV, you virtually see two different countries. You are right – one of them is a high-tech economy and the world’s largest software supplier, with fantastic research centers and a highly developed pharmaceutical industry. India has innovative hubs of the ‘Silicon Valley’ type – something that Russia is only now planning to build – in Hydarabad, Puna, Bangalore, and Mumbai. It is also worth mentioning that India has vast numbers of highly qualified professionals; Indian nationals or people of Indian origin work in many research centers in the United States and in the Silicon Valley itself, where they account for a large portion of the population. A large number of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and taxi drivers there are also Indians. The Indian diaspora is very powerful. It is both influential and immense.
“On the other hand, you can see things in India that may seem impossible. I am referring, primarily, to the enormous number of homeless people.
They receive assistance, of course, and food, and they certainly benefit from the country’s climate. It is due to the hot climate that they can survive at all in such awful conditions.
“At the same time, the middle class is rapidly expanding in India. It is important that this expansion follows from improvement in the lower classes’ standards of living, rather than a drop in the upper-middle class. People from lower classes have opportunities to get an education and integrate themselves into society. India has a 400-million-strong middle class now – almost three times Russia’s entire population. That middle class is currently at the helm of the country’s economic life and is gradually ascending to politics as well.”
I don’t think anyone can deny that India’s interest in Russia faded with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the past, many Indian students attended Russian universities.
“I could name several factors that have led to that change. The Soviet Union provided educational services free of charge. Now that’s not the case, and education has become rather expensive. There is also the language barrier. An English-speaking Indian student can easily study in an American, British, or Canadian university. Here, he or she will have to learn Russian. That last obstacle is our own fault; we probably have to offer more language courses. But recent events in Moscow also play a role – I am referring, of course, to ethnically motivated violence. Indian students have been attacked here. Will any mother agree to send her son or daughter to school in a country where such things can occur? This situation is regrettable, in fact. I remember a time when we had large groups of Indian students here who could coexist peacefully with anyone. Now things have changed, and not for the better.”
Well, let us hope that the situation will slightly improve after Medvedev’s visit.
“I believe that some changes in Russia are needed before we can improve Russian-Indian relations. An environment needs to be created in Russia itself that is suitable for reviving contact with our old friends.”
Thank you very much for your comments.