Modi reboots India’s connect with Nordic nations after decades

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As Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Sweden on an official visit and, significantly, to co-host with his Swedish counterpart Stefan Lofven the first India-Nordic summit, the official spokesman of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Raveesh Kumar, tweeted: “Scripting history! PM @narendramodi arrives in Stockholm on a first bilateral visit in 30 years.…” Obviously, Kumar could not go into the reason for this hiatus. However, it can be summed up in a familiar name that has haunted India for nearly 30 years: Bofors.

In 1987, Indian National Congress prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was bogged down with allegations of kickbacks for purchasing the Bofors artillery gun. It cost him his government and led to a three-decade arms-import freeze and a chill in bilateral relations with Sweden.

It was impossible for subsequent prime ministers Narasimha Rao or Manmohan Singh to visit Sweden despite the close relationship that had existed in the past between Olof Palme and Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, but the Bofors issue inhibited non-Congress prime ministers too. So it is to Modi’s credit that he has not been constrained by the past.

Mature countries set troublesome issues like Bofors aside while continuing to foster international ties in areas that are in their interest. It is only if a country acts in a dubious manner, as Denmark did in the Kim Davy matter, that comprehensive negative steps need to be taken. Recognizing that Swedish technology can be useful in some crucial areas, Modi responded purposefully to Lofven’s desire to develop bilateral relations. Consequently, then-president Pranab Mukherjee visited Sweden in 2015.

With the ice broken, Lofven visited Mumbai in 2016 to take part in the “Make in India” week. He held in-depth discussions with Modi and the two decided to intensify economic and technological contacts, including in the defense and security fields.

Sweden has an advanced defense industry, and with India now determined to develop its own, it makes good sense to foster partnerships with it. Renewable energy, urban waste management and innovation were also identified as focus areas for collaboration. This would build upon the long presence of some well-known Swedish companies in India such as Ericsson and new ones such as Saab, which manufactures the Gripen combat aircraft.

Modi’s Stockholm visit takes the 2016 process forward. Most noteworthy is the decision to sign a confidentiality agreement for the safeguarding of Swedish defense technology. This underlines the determination to act purposefully in defense manufacturing industries.

Sweden is naturally interested in selling major weapon systems, including fighter aircraft, but these are areas where it should expect great competition from other suppliers. All that was decided is encouraging, but the proof will lie in what is actually implemented on the ground.

That the prime ministers of the other four Nordic countries, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland, agreed to be in Stockholm for the India-Nordic summits is indicative of their recognition of India’s emerging global stature

Meanwhile the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will not give up on the Bofors case, but it will not have an impact on India-Sweden relations.

That the prime ministers of the other four Nordic countries, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland, agreed to be in Stockholm for the India-Nordic summits is indicative of their recognition of India’s emerging global stature.

After the conclusion of bilateral talks, Lofven eloquently remarked, “India has emerged as a global power. No important global conversation, be it on climate change or sustainable development, is complete without the words of India.” There is no doubt that Nordic leaders share this view; hence the summit. Naturally, the growing opportunities provided by the Indian market also attracted them.

All of the Nordic countries are advanced economies with strong welfare-state systems. Some of them have exhibited tendencies to give unsought “advice” to developing countries and work through non-governmental organizations for this purpose. In the past this annoyed India, and during prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s reign, some of their assistance programs were suspended, indicating that their “lectures” were not acceptable.

The India-Nordic summit joint statement not only underlines the areas in which the Nordic countries and India can cooperate but also the common values they share. Thus the temptation to give advice should now become less.

The India-Nordic summit sent clear signals to both Donald Trump’s America and Xi Jinping’s aggressive China. At a time when President Trump is challenging open and inclusive global trading systems, the summit emphasized “the importance of rules-based multilateral trading systems as well as open and inclusive trade for prosperity and growth.” Europe is worried about the imposition of selective duties on some product lines and Trump’s protectionist approach. India shares these concerns and has articulated them previously.

Nordic countries have substantial interests in the Chinese economy, but this did not constrain them from joining India in calling for the upholding of “the rules-based international system.” This is an unmistakable reference to China, which is disregarding international conventions and rules as it expands its international influence.

The Nordic countries also came out in support of India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, although in guarded language. Significantly, they agreed to work for India’s NSG application “with the aim of reaching a positive outcome at the earliest opportunity.” It remains to be seen how actively they will pursue this matter with China, which has shown no sign of diluting its opposition to India’s NSG membership.

Modi met with the Nordic prime ministers separately, including his Danish counterpart Lars Rasmussen. Details of this meeting have not been released as yet and hence it is not known if the “Kim Davy” case was discussed. Davy (real name Niels Holck) was allegedly a key conspirator in the 1995 arms drop over Purulia district in the eastern state of West Bengal. For decades India has been trying to have him extradited to face charges of terrorism.

Modi had told a Danish minister whom he met at the margins of a “Vibrant Gujarat” event in January 2017 that Holck should be extradited to India. The Indian Central Bureau of Investigation put in a fresh extradition request last year and the Danes again asked for assurances.

Their conduct during the extradition proceedings in the period 2009-2011 was duplicitous. The Indian government must clarify whether it has received assurances that Holck will be sent to India to stand trial. It will be a pity if the Danes are allowed to get away with their disgraceful conduct in this case while India goes back to normalizing ties with Denmark.

All in all, Modi’s Nordic outreach has been timely and a success.

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