Pragmatic and sub-regional – reflections on Modi’s visit to Stockholm

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sweden is over. It was surprisingly low key, at least if judged by the Swedish media coverage. That a leader of growing global importance, representing a population of 1,3 billion people and what is fairly soon to become the world’s third largest economy did not seem to impress the Swedish media. A short feature of the visit was aired half way into Sweden’s biggest news show (Aktuellt) and the following studio discussion was dominated by recent horrendous rape cases. Even most students who walked past the Indians lined up for the diaspora event at the Stockholm University campus on 17 April, seemed unaware of the fact that the Indian PM was in town.

What then actually came out of the visit? Except for the roundtable with high profile Swedish CEO:s in the presence of Narendra Modi and Stefan Löfven, and the diaspora event, the meeting focused on political level contacts – to promote business and innovation. Sweden and India made a joint statement announcing an “Innovation Partnership for a Sustainable Future”.

Interestingly, a very similar spectrum of themes highlighted by the Swedish-Indian partnership, was also discussed in PM Modi’s bilaterals with the other Nordic countries. Sweden on the other hand have made similar arrangements with Germany and France.

There were also continued and intensified discussions regarding strategic defence cooperation linked to the prospective defence deal involving JAS Gripen, and the critical issue of technology and information transfer.

In sum, the visit could be described as partly transactional, fully pragmatic, and playing to each other’s strengths. India brings promises of a huge market driven by a growing middle class, contextualised and cost efficient solutions, and a segmented labour force, which includes both highly educated and manual labour. It also speaks from the position of an emerging global power. Sweden is strongly committed to multilateral organisations that occasionally figures in India’s foreign policy calcualtions. More importantly for now, Sweden also brings innovation and advanced technology. Drung the meetings there were occasional mentions of “rule based order” and “free trade”, but what this actually means for the long term strategic Swedish-Indian relation remains unclear.

Up till now, India’s approach to our part of the world has been bilateral. This visit could however be seen as reflecting an emerging trend in how India, with its limited institutional capacity but great power ambitions, work its partnerships on a transforming global arena. India deals with great powers bilaterally, and with smaller states sub-regionally. The country tries to enhance sub-regional institutions where it needs to project influence, and rely on existing sub-regional integration where its interests are less profound. This does not bode well for a further deepened EU-India cooperation, but the Nordics might want to study this trend closely as it points to a potential for increased collaboration among the Nordic countries in relation to India. The prospect of this, in turn, is hinged on whether Denmark and Norway are again viewed favourably in Delhi.


By: Henrik Chetan Aspengren

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