Under Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, India has at long last started to give due importance to the Nordic countries that are always eager to collaborate with liberal, democratic nations.
The Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Lofven on March 5 emphatically said India and the European Union that Sweden is part of, are democratic superpowers. Lofven was attending a virtual summit with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His comment came at a time when a Washington based NGO Freedom House had downgraded India from free to partly free giving the world’s largest democracy a score of 67 out of 100. It pointed out the erosion of civil rights in the country as the main reason for the downgrade.
Ironically, the only three countries to get full marks in the report were all Nordic including Sweden. As such, Lofven’s comments were a ringing endorsement of India’s strength as a free and democratic nation.
"From our bilateral cooperation to multilateral regional affairs, India and the European Union are democratic superpowers,” he said. “As we join forces, to build back more inclusive societies, it is more important than ever to reaffirm our shared values and mutual commitment to democracy, rule of law, gender equality, human rights and fundamental rights."
The meeting between the two leaders lasted nearly an hour where a number of wide ranging issues were discussed including the current turmoil at Myanmar, global terrorism, Sweden’s decision to join the International Solar Alliance which is steered by India and the prospect of revival of NSA level talks between the two nations.
The Nordic countries, which also include, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland, are renowned as the most developed set of nations in the world with very high degree of civil liberties and social security for its citizens. With their large state spending on education and research and development, they are also leaders in innovation and technology.
Even though the European Union is India’s biggest trading partner as a block, India has generally neglected its ties with the nordic countries focussing more on traditional bigger continental European nations like France, Germany, Netherlands and Italy. Under Modi’s leadership this has started to change. The meeting with Lofven was the second virtual summit with a nordic country in close succession following the one with Denmark in September last year.
It is not a coincidence. In April 2018, Modi made his maiden trip to Sweden, which was also the first visit by an Indian prime minister to the country in three decades, that set the foundation for stronger ties between India and the northern most countries of Europe. At that time, the first India-Nordic summit was also held which saw Modi interacting with the prime ministers of all five countries in Stockholm on a single platform. This was two years after Lofven had made his own maiden trip to India to participate in the Make in India week in February 2016.
India has a bilateral trade of just over $ 5 billion with the region, which pales in comparison to China’s over $ 50 billion. The scope for greater bonding is substantial. The region’s mindset for innovation and knack for solving complex infrastructural problems and India’s huge talent pool have emerged as the areas of potential greater synergies.
“The unique strengths of India and the Nordic countries offer immense opportunities for trade and investment diversification and mutually beneficial collaboration,” a joint statement after the Nordic Summit of 2018 had said. “The Nordic approach to innovation systems, characterised by a strong collaboration between public sector, private sector and academia, was discussed, and synergies were identified with India’s rich pool of talent and skills.”
Already the Indian diaspora in the region is growing with around 100,000 settled permanently. Sweden alone accounts for nearly a third of them as India has become a leading country of temporary labour supply to Sweden’s high-tech sectors. In 2017, Sweden issued the highest number of residence and work permits to Indians at 9,483 followed by Thailand at 2,226. Applicants from China got only 1,406.
"I see many areas of cooperation (with India). First is innovation. There is great potential for cooperation in this field. Stockholm is now one of the cleanest capitals in the world from being a heavily polluted one 100 years ago,” Lofven had said in Mumbai during his 2016 visit. "The world's eyes are now on India. They used to be on China earlier, but they are now on India."
India’s long history of democratic values, liberalism and stable policy regime are facets that find good resonance in the Nordic region. Its potential for growth as an economy at the same time provides the key ingrediant any investor looks for. As the pandemic recedes into the background, India’s Nordic sojourn is a story waiting to play out in the right earnest.