As a dashing young captain of the Indian Army, when Vikash Kumar Suhag shook hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Victory Day parade at Red Square on May 10, he embodied a part of President Pranab Mukherjee’s vision to make the historically strong and resilient Indo-Russian ties relevant and contemporary to the new generation.
Suhag led a contingent of Grenadiers, most of them under 20 and all in a foreign land for the first time, who marched their way down the Victory Day parade and into the hearts of Russian soldiers and civilians. Their swarthy skin, handlebar moustaches, proud safas and arm-swinging marching made them stand out among the eight other foreign contingents that were invited, as well as the Russian soldiers.
The 70th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call World War II, has immense significance for the nation that lost over 25 million lives. The Soviet victory over Nazi Germany after 900 days of siege of St Petersburg marked the turning point in not just the war but also the course of world history.
Mukherjee’s presence at the ceremony (which was boycotted by several European countries following the Ukrainian conflict) was a statement to the world that “India’s ties with Russia would not be affected by transient global changes’’. He noted that Russia had contributed to India’s development, stood by India during its worst times and that India, too, would reciprocate in a similar measure. “We are very grateful for India to be here,’’ said Russia’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Igor Morgulov.
Mukherjee was given an honorary doctorate by the Diplomatic Academy. The rector of the academy, Evgeny Bazhanov, spoke of Mukherjee as an exemplary politician and friend of Russia.
During his three-day tour, the president, while re-emphasising defence ties, talked about the need to contemporise the friendship and leverage it on several fronts, from trade to research.
At a meeting with Russian Indologists, Mukherjee urged them to research on contemporary India, too, and not just on ancient Indian philosophy. While applauding the efforts to translate ancient Indian texts into Russian, Mukherjee noted that the India study should not just be intellectually stimulating, but also financially lucrative, to make it attractive enough for researchers. “We need to keep in mind the contemporary relevance of the subjects,’’ he said.
This, however, will require substantial effort. As Nataliya Kanaeva, philosophy professor at Moscow National Research University, said, “We are attracted to India’s past. When it comes to the contemporary world, the American influence is strongest in the youth.’’
Indeed, Hollywood blockbuster Avengers is running across cinemas in Moscow right now, and Indian flicks are largely restricted to film fests. There hasn’t been much progress beyond Raj Kapoor’s Joota hai Japani and Mithun’s Jimmy Jimmy... though there is a channel dedicated to Indian films dubbed in Russian.
Though the number of Indophiles is far fewer than the US green card aspirants, those who fall in love with India are a dedicated lot. Hinduism, according to one study, was the fastest growing religion in Russia.
The Namaste Russia festival, which Mukherjee inaugurated, should showcase a slice of modern-day India over the next one year with performers, including the Shillong Chamber Choir, slated to entertain Muscovites.
Mukherjee’s focus during this visit was on academic ties, and he signed nine memoranda of understanding for joint, 'usable and scalable' research between leading Indian institutions, like Indian Institute of Technology and Delhi University, and Russian centres of technology and research.
“MoUs are not like Aladdin's magic lamp,’’ Mukherjee told a delegation of media personnel travelling with him. Grabbing the attention of the youth would be an ongoing effort.
India and Russia are also planning to celebrate 40 years of India’s space debut. India's first satellite, Aryabhata, was sent on board a Russian spaceship. At the bilateral talks with Putin, the president discussed the need to reinvigorate space tie-ups, said Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar.
The Indian diaspora in Russia is 15,000-strong, but trade links are rather modest. The two heads spoke of raising trade to $30 billion and investment to $50 billion.
The sanctions imposed on Russia by several countries after the Ukraine conflict could be an opportunity for India, noted P.S. Raghavan, India's ambassador to Russia. The bilateral talks focused on starting bovine meat export to Russia, followed shortly by dairy products. Though India is the largest bovine meat exporter, Russia has not been a market so far.
Indeed, there is enough potential to take the Indo-Russian ties beyond the defence supplier-consumer level. Putin’s visit to India last winter, followed by Mukherjee's visit to Russia now and two visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi later this year (for the BRICS summit in July and another visit in autumn) could inject a dose of freshness into a relationship that is running the risk of being stuck in a time warp.