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December 23, 1998


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The Rediff Interview/T N Kaul

'We have to go towards a multi-polar world where India, China, Russia, Japan will all play an important role'

Former foreign secretary T N 'Ticki' Kaul has been sent as India's ambassador to Russia during two very different periods. The first time round he was posted to Moscow in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, and at a time when the then Soviet Union's power was feared throughout the world. When he was posted the next time, it was in the late 1980s, at the beginning of the end of the USSR.

Kaul looks back on both his tenures in Russia with unabashed love, he says, and in this interview with Suhasini Haidar, he explains his optimism on the future of relations between the countries, particularly after the visit of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.

How would you describe the current phase of bilateral relations between India and Russia?

I think after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, relations between India and Russia were a little upset for a couple of years. But I think things are stabilising now, particularly in Russia and also in India, and we are taking a more pragmatic, a more realistic view of our relations in the contemporary world.

What is the significance of Primakov's visit to India this week?

I think it is the continuation of our whole policy of friendship, which is based on mutual interest. It is not aimed against any particular country, but it certainly is a deterrent against the domination by any outside power in the internal affairs of Russia as well as those of India. The present treaties and the set of agreements that have been signed cover a wide range of fields: trade, economic co-operation, science and technology, defence, sale of medicines etc.

While on that subject, which area represents the strongest part of Indo-Russian ties?

That would be what is called 'strategic interests' -- strategy doesn't mean only military strategy, it can be political strategy, or economic strategy, or their strategy concerning international affairs. Our relationship has been strengthened over the decades by the special relationships shared by the leaders of both countries -- be it Nehru and Khrushchev, Indira Gandhi and Brezhnev, or Rajiv Gandhi and Gorbachev. And the closeness between them has filtered down to the people.

During both my postings there, no matter which part of the Soviet Union I went to, I received a tremendous amount of love and interest for India from the local people there.

What do you think of the proposed and much-talked about 'alliance' between India-Russia-China?

I think we have to take it one step at a time. Our relations with China were improving after Rajiv Gandhi's visit in 1988, and Narasimha Rao thereafter, until the unfortunate statements earlier this year by the defence minister, and the letter that the prime minister wrote to heads of friendly states. I think they over-emphasised the threat from China, and that being the main reason behind our nuclear explosions at Pokhran. I think we could have justified our decision to conduct nuclear tests on its own merits, without having to refer to threats from anywhere.

However, I think if these three countries can co-operate, it will be a very strong factor for peace, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region and throughout the world. And it will prevent the domination by any one country... Unfortunately, the so-called 'sole-surviving-superpower-syndrome', which influences American policy today, cannot last long.

The world has moved from a bi-polar to a unipolar world, but only temporarily. I mean, a bi-polar world was bad enough, but a unipolar world is much worse. We have to go towards a multi-polar world where India, China, Russia, Japan will all play an important role. And I think an alliance between India, China, and Russia will lead to better relations throughout the Asia-Pacific region and will lead to peace and co-operation, rather than confrontation.

How has Russia dealt with India's nuclear tests this year?

Well, the first time we had conducted nuclear tests in 1974, I recall Russian leaders telling me that they were very happy, even though they couldn't say so openly. I think the Russians appreciate our position much better than America does. They have shown that by not applying any sanctions against us.

In the last decade, Indo-Russian relations have seen a certain 'coolness'. What do you attribute this to?

Naturally, when things change in a country, as they did after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it affects the relations of all countries with that country. It takes time for them to stabilise. And I think that time has now come for both Russia and India. They know they are great powers in terms of human and natural resources, in terms of geographical and strategic location. They have no clash in interests, on the other hand there is a commonality. This visit of Primakov is a realisation by Russia that co-operation between India and Russia is of benefit to both countries economically, politically,... in every field.

Do you think that the nature of the relationship between India and Russia is changing from an emotional one to a more pragmatic, down-to-business one?

Very much so. And I wouldn't just say it was just emotional. It was a cultural closeness that we had. And that helped us economically and otherwise. When, for instance, we couldn't get military equipment from any other country, not for love or money, it was the Soviet Union that supplied our needs at that critical juncture. It isn't just one-way traffic, though. We supply the needs of the Soviet Union on a rupee-rouble exchange basis, without any expenditure on foreign exchange by them or us, and at equitable prices. So both have benefited from it. Neither has exploited the other. But I think that the special nature of our friendship from the time of the 1971 treaty of co-operation between India and Russia, although aimed against no one, has nonetheless prevented America and China from getting involved in the Indo-Pakistani conflict thereafter.

Tell us about Prime Minister Primakov. How does he view India?

I have known him since the mid-sixties, when I was ambassador to the Soviet Union. He was then one of the most eminent correspondents for the Russian paper Pravda, and a specialist on Middle-Eastern affairs. I have met him off and on after that, whenever I visited Moscow, or he visited India. He is a man of very strong common sense, practical, pragmatic, liberal, with a positive outlook. I think he has been instrumental in influencing President Yeltsin to take steps in the right direction on various international relationships, particularly with India. I think he is a friend of India, in the sense that friendship is not something emotional, but a sense of commonality of interests.

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