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Exclusive interview of the Ambassador of India to Russia D.B. Venkatesh Varma to RBC TV channel, 13 August 2020
Transcript of Ambassador’s interview with RBC, August 13, 2020
Exclusive interview of the Ambassador of India to Russia D.B. Venkatesh Varma to RBC TV channel, 13 August 2020
Today we are talking to His Excellency Ambassador of India to Russia D.B.Venkatesh Varma.
Thank you for agreeing to answer questions of RBC. But, first of all I would like to congratulate you as India’s Independence Day would be celebrated on August 15. I would also like to ask that 73 years of independence, what all went on through these years, what are the aims and objectives before the Government now?
Thank you very much for this opportunity and greetings to all your viewers. Yes, this is true that on 15 August, we will be celebrating our Independence Day. In 1947, India became an independent country, and it has changed so much in the last 73 years. Firstly, it was and still is the largest democracy in the world. The number of people who go to the polling station is more than 700 million. In 1947, India was one of the poorest countries in the world, today, it is the fifth largest economy. In 2025, we might become the third largest economy. So this has been a fundamental change. But what has remained constant is our friendship with the Russian people. And on this occasion, I would also like to convey my very warm greetings on the 75 anniversary of the Victory Day, the Great Patriotic War that was fought by Russia, and it has saved world civilization. It was a mark of respect by India that our Defence Minister had participated in the Kremlin parade, in the Red Square parade, and I was fortunate to be part of the delegation; I recognize the great sacrifice that was done by the Russian people. I also had the opportunity to visit the Church of the Russian Armed Forces in Kubinka. I was very fascinated by the Church and the Museum which includes the memory of some Indian soldiers who fought giving assistance to the Soviet Union in the Second World War. So, there is a lot in history that India and Russia have together. So, I am happy on this occasion to give you a small glimpse of that very happy association.
— Talking in a bit detail about the role of Russia in the foreign policy of India, what is this role?
Andrei, for us, Russia is a very important country. It occupies a very unique place in India’s foreign policy. We are traditional friends and there has never been an occasion where India and Russia have had conflict. India and Russia enjoy a Strategic Privileged Partnership. This year, we will be celebrating the 20 year of our Strategic Partnership. His Excellency President Putin is expected to visit India later this year. PM Narendra Modi, with whom President Putin has an excellent personal relationship, will extend a very warm welcome to him. Our relations have moved over the years, but one thing is constant that is our friendship, our trust, confidence and our respect for each other. I am very confident of our relations as we move forward. The world is changing in various ways, in many ways, but one constant factor is the strength of our bilateral relations. Not only at the level of our leaders, which is very strong, but also at the level of the governments, of the business community and most importantly of the people. True friendship between any two countries is the friendship based on culture and civilization. India has great respect for the civilizational strengths of Russia, and similarly a lot of Russian people are attracted by the culture and civilization of India. This year, we mark the 550th anniversary of Afanasy Niketin’s travel to India. He was an admirer of India. 550 years is small time in the large span of history but a huge step for our friendship. So Niketin undertook a pilgrimage of friendship between India and Russia. And that pilgrimage is still continuing.
— Dear Ambassador, talking about the global problem, which the whole world is facing, the problem of Coronavirus, what is the situation in India, how is India fighting, are theку any collaborations with Russian pharmaceutical companies?
Of course, the COVID pandemic is a global pandemic, neither Russia nor India were immune to the pandemic. Naturally, it has affected all the countries. In India, the figures of Corona infected are still pretty high but we are also a country of 1.2 billion people. However, I think the measures taken by the Government have been very effective. We have tried to keep the numbers down and tests up. So today, India is doing around 700, 000 tests per day. The recovery rate is almost 69%. And the death rate has been kept low at less than around 2%. So compared to global levels, India is doing well. It is a matter of more precautions, more tests. We also have great admiration for the manner in which Russia has handled the COVID pandemic in terms of the measures taken by the Government, in terms of the treatment. There is a large scope for cooperation between Russia and India. India has already supplied more than 90 tons of medical supplies to Russia including hydroxychloroquine, which is one of the medicines that is used for treatment. There is collaboration between our pharmaceutical companies, we are watching very closely the advances that Russia has been making in the production of vaccine. Similar research is happening in India. We hope that a vaccine will come up not only in Russia, but in India too and that too will provide an opportunity for collaboration. Pharma collaboration between Russia and India is already very developed. I am very confident that with the Coronavirus pandemic, these opportunities will further increase. But we would like to wish all the health workers in Russia, our very best. We have great admiration and appreciation for all the doctors for all the nurses, for all the medical assistance, for the ambulance drivers, who did such great work, such humanitarian work. Similar work was done in India. So we have great admiration for the health workers of both the countries.
— Dear Ambassador, continuing the topic of cooperation between Russia and India, in economy, space cooperation, military-technical. Let us start with space cooperation, keeping in mind the strong cooperation between Russia and India in research in space, we would like to see the criterion of this cooperation based on the success of the American company SPACEX.
Of course, Space cooperation is a very old area of cooperation between India and Russia. We are very grateful to the support given by the Soviet Union. The first Indian cosmonaut in the Space was with the help that Soviet Union provided, was Rakesh Sharma. He is still looked upon by the young and old people in India as a great hero. Today, there are four astronauts called Gagan-nauts who are being trained in Russia, who will be travelling into space in the coming two years and that too, on an Indian spacecraft. So, this is yet another area of cooperation. I had the opportunity to meet them recently and they are full of praise and admiration for the support, professionalism and the friendship that they received at the Roscosmos and from their Russian friends. And we are indeed very grateful for that. You see, the Space industry is changing. In the past, it used to be only the Government sector, the Space sector, which used to do Space research but, now, private industry is increasingly playing a role. You made a reference to SPACEX in the US, but there are other examples as well. India too is allowing the Government sector to partner with the private sector. So, we would very much welcome Russian companies to participate in the opportunities in the Space sector in India, including, private sector companies to form joint ventures with the Indian partners and take this cooperation forward.
— Dear Ambassador, India imports a considerable amount of oil and gas, how do you assess the quality of investments in the Russian energy sector. Is India interested in increasing those investments?
India and Russia are partners in the energy sector. India made an investment in Sakhalin-1, 20 years ago. For India, it was one of the best investments that India has made abroad. Subsequently, India has made other investments almost totaling about 15 billion dollars. Similarly, Russia has invested almost 12-13 billion dollars in Indian energy sector. And we see it as only a beginning. We see a lot of potential for cooperation in oil, gas and, most importantly, in LNG both with respect to Rosneft, Gazprom and also companies such as Novatek who have a very successful record in Russia. India is also exploring opportunities for investments and cooperation in the Russian Far East and the Arctic. Our Prime Minister was in Vladivostok last year in September for the Eastern Economic Forum and we have decided to expand the Chennai-Vladivostok link. This will be an energy bridge between Russia and India. Russia is one of the biggest energy producers in the world. India is one of the biggest energy consumers in the world and between two friends, the opportunists for cooperation will only increase in the years to come.
— Another traditional area of cooperation is military-technical cooperation. How do you assess the quality of this interaction? I wonder if Indian military is satisfied with the Russian arms?
Of course. India is one of the biggest partners of Russia in the military-technical cooperation area. More than 60-70 % of our Armed Forces’ equipment comes from Russia. India always had a relationship of trust and confidence with Russia. We find that Russian equipment is not only very good in terms of technology but also the bilateral relationship is one of trust and between friends and strategic partners. The relationship is also changing. India is interested in producing more of the equipment in India as part of the Prime Minister’s Make in India programme and we are very happy that Russia has agreed to partner with India introducing different equipment in India. An Agreement on Joint Manufacture of Spare Parts has been signed and this will be a huge step forward. Additionally, Russia and India can cooperate in producing military equipment for export to third countries. Just as we can do with respect to the cooperation in the nuclear area, nuclear energy production, where India and Russia cooperate in Bangladesh.
Similarly, in terms of arms exports, I think, there will be a huge step forward for India. We expect the Kalashnikov rifle AK-203 to be produced in India as part of joint venture between India and Russia and there are other good examples too, Sukhoi-30, T-90 tanks, the advanced frigates, our aircraft carrier is from Russia, so there are many good examples of cooperation between India and Russia in the military-technical sphere and we expect it to grow in the years to come.
— Dear Ambassador, we have discussed the traditional spheres for cooperation, and which Russian goods is India interested in? Well, maybe, there are some interesting areas for small and mediums-sized business, food, perhaps textiles.
There are huge opportunities for cooperation between India and Russia in the economic sphere. Traditionally, Indian tea, coffee, leather articles, textiles, jewelry and diamonds were the traditional areas of Indian exports but increasingly, I think, high level technology equipment. We are also looking at pharma exports which are increasing in value. This is an area we can move forward. The next area which has great potential is digital technology. India and Russia have a lot of young people who are extremely good at IT, digital technologies, and artificial intelligence, and this is another area where we can look for new cooperation.
— Mr. Ambassador, I can’t ignore the topics that are sensitive for India. The relations between India and Pakistan, what are they like now? What is happening in the state of Kashmir after the article 370 of the Constitution has been repealed last year? Have any changes that were believed to be implemented after the repeal of the article been made?
There has been a lot of change in Kashmir in the last one year since the abrogation of Article 370 in two main respects. One is that Kashmir has now joined the national mainstream of India in terms of laws, in terms of regulations, in terms of social protection for women, for weaker sections of society, but also with respect to developmental aspects. I think development and national integration are the two main changes that have happened in Kashmir. There has been a big change in the attitude of the people, especially of the young people, in terms of the new proposals and schemes that have been put forward by the government, and we are confident that the normalization of the process, economic, social and the political process, will be taken to a new stage in the future. So one year has given good results in terms of the development of Kashmir. With respect to our relations to Pakistan, as you know, Pakistan is our neighbor. We have not had the best of relations with Pakistan. We have stated that once cross border terrorism is eliminated, India looks forward to having normal relations with Pakistan. But we can not have normalization of relations until the end of terrorism is achieved. We are very grateful for the very consistent support that Russia has provided. Russia has always emphasized that relations between India and Pakistan should be settled on the basis of the Shimla agreement and Lahore declaration and that fully conforms to India’s position. So, we are very grateful for Russia’s support.
— India is planning to deploy 35 thousand soldiers on the border with China. Mr. Ambassador, why this old, long-standing conflict between two great states, two nuclear powers, is yet to be resolved? This is my first question. The second question is: is there a non-violent way of resolving this conflict?
India and China are the two biggest countries in Asia. Countries with great history and civilization. And we have always wanted good relations with China. The border conflict has a long history because there is an un-demarcated border between India and China, and India has always said that we want this issue to be resolved through dialogue. And there are a number of dialogue mechanisms. Unfortunately, this year, China has attempted to change the status quo on the ground in a manner that gives unilateral advantage to China. We have said that we are open to dialogue. But, we are also firm in our resolve to protect our sovereignty and territorial integrity. So, India and China are engaging in dialogue. We definitely prefer a peaceful resolution through dialogue, and our Foreign Minister and our NSA have already talked to their Chinese counterparts. We hope that through dialogue, these issues will be fully resolved. India wants normal relations with China. But, normalization of relations with China can happen once there is full disengagement and de-escalation on the border, and peace and tranquility on the border areas have been restored. So, we hope that this process will continue. It is not yet completed, but through dialogue, we hope to resolve these issues.
— Mr. Ambassador, let us go back to the economy, let’s say, to economical hotspots. Do you see any risks for the global economy in the worsening trade war between China and the US? What are they? And the second question, do you consider it a possibility that India can take China’s place as the US’ number one partner?
You see, the trade war between the US and China is not good for either the US or China or for the world economy. Because of globalization, a trade war in any part will affect the other part as well. With that being said, I think that there are issues that have to be addressed through dialogue. We don’t see trade war benefiting anyone. We do hope that the process of dialogue will continue. But the recent pandemic also showed that the over-dependence on one or two suppliers creates problems, and that is true of India and that is true of Russia. If you have one or two items coming from either one or two sources, that also creates a problem of over-dependence. So, therefore, there are lessons to be learned both in India and Russia. I think India and Russia should find ways of addressing these problems in a manner that would protect our interests and create mutual benefit.
— Mr. Ambassador, a good example of international cooperation is the IT-sphere. Could you please tell me how India managed to achieve such an astonishing breakthrough in the development of technologies? The country is attractive in terms of investment – Google, for example, announced that it will be investing US$10 billion in the IT development, Facebook made a similar announcement, as well as other companies. What is India’s secret?
Well, the secret is basically in the strength of the Indian IT sphere. And the strength is basically related to a number of very talented young Indians who are very good in the IT sector. The second reason is the policies followed by the Government called “Digital India”. The third is, of course, a very large market. We have over 700 million Internet users. The digital infrastructure in the country is very, very large. We have what is called the Adhar card, which has 1.2 billion subscribers. The digital cost of data in India is one of the lowest in the world. One GB of data in India is only about 18 rubles. In Russia, the cheapest data is above 30 rubles. In the United States, it is several dollars, so there is a big difference in the cost of data. So, the future of IT and digital technology is based on data. Data is even called the “new oil”. In that area, India is doing exceedingly well. There is a lot of potential for Russian and Indian entrepreneurs to come together in digital and IT technologies. We are very appreciative of the great success that Russian companies have achieved. For example, Yandex or Kaspersky, there are several other examples of Russia doing extremely well in this area. So between Russian talent, Indian talent, and the Indian market, there is a lot that India and Russia can do together.
— Mr. Ambassador, could you, please, explain the situation concerning the Chinese app called Tik Tok and other Chinese apps that have been banned in India? What was the cause of it? This is the first question. The second question falls into the same category – does it make any difference for you if the company that has not been banned is Chinese or, let’s say, American?
No, India is an open country and an open market. We do not wish to exclude any company for political reasons. So, therefore, we are very much interested in all global companies coming to India, and you just mentioned very good examples of Google or Facebook or Walmart coming to India, as well as a number of other companies, including ones from Russia and China as well. But with respect to Tik Tok, WeChat and others, we expect these companies to follow the rules and regulations of India, especially with regard to digital security and privacy of individual information. If these rules and regulations are followed, of course, we do not wish to keep out any company from entering the Indian market.
— Thus, correct me if I am wrong, if these companies follow Indian requirements and regulations, they will be allowed to work on Indian territory?
— I saved the favorite topic of the summer season for last. It is, of course, vacation and tourism. Goa is among Russians’ favorite destinations but, unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the flights have been canceled. What is happening in the Indian tourism industry now? Is it ready to welcome Russian tourists? And, possibly, the main question – when will the flights be resumed? Do you negotiate this with Russian and Indian airlines? Overall, what is going on in the tourism sector?
Well, you have asked a question that is on the minds of thousands of people, especially friends of India and Russia, tourist companies, airlines, ordinary tourists who are interested to go to India, Goa, to different parts of India. Unfortunately, we are not yet at the stage where we have resumed international flights including ones from India or from Russia. Russia has opened up only three or four routes. But gradually, I think, things will improve. With respect to Goa, domestic tourism in Goa is already open. There are no restrictions on those within India or Goa for tourism, but the main difficulty now is the lack of international flights. So, until international flights resume, which we hope will happen in the next couple of months, unfortunately for this year and for this season, the people of Russia will have limited opportunities to go to Goa. But we look forward to welcoming them with double warmth next year in the next tourist season. As soon as airlines open up, Russia and Russian tourists are always welcome in different parts of India.
Mr. Ambassador, thank you for answering RBC’s questions! Thank you!
Thank you and I wish you all the best.
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