By Lidia Kulik
Much as for today's Russia, digital transformation has been one of the priorities for India's government, its entrepreneurs and the civil society. Despite the turmoil caused by the pandemic, the changes on the path of digitization taking place in Russia and India open up new opportunities for cooperation between the two countries and pose new problems.
Given that forecasts of India's economic growth are again—as it happened a year ago—downgraded, and the footage of today's tragic situation in the country dominates TV screens, it is difficult to believe that a significant part of the positive transformations of recent years in India has to be attributed to the technological progress of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the expansion of knowledge economy and a rapid digitization. However, this remains the case, and a study published recently by the SKOLKOVO Institute for Emerging Markets Studies in cooperation with the Indian School of Business focuses on the digitization aspect of the profound transformation that extends to the Indian economy and society as a whole.
The research report "India Goes Digital. From a local phenomenon to a global influencer" examines the main distinctive features that, as the authors argue, make India's digitisation profile unique. They include both fairly well-known aspects, such as the system of biometric identification of citizens operational in India, as well as less familiar features, including a close partnership between the state and private businesses in designing and implementing digitization programmes, their impact on the increasing financial inclusion as well as the boom of entrepreneurship, which is also largely associated with the rapid proliferation of digital technologies in India.
The study also examines the impact of digitization on the education sector, critical to India's development. It explores the great potential that India's educational companies have; after all, as of today, they are the fastest growing in their segment on a global scale, seeking international expansion, which makes quality education more accessible and effective for both developing and developed countries.
The study provides insights into the companies, institutions and entrepreneurs that make up the emerging digital India. In the segment of the study concerning Russian-Indian cooperation, the authors analyze the experience of Russian businesses in India and argue that it is necessary to strengthen the technological segment within the strategic partnership between Russia and India, which is not only dictated by the present-day requirements but also has a very significant potential.
The Russian-Indian partnership in the era of digital transformation In 2020, Russia and India celebrated 20 years since the Declaration on Strategic Partnership was signed in New Delhi by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President Vladimir Putin in October 2000. In December 2010, the India-Russia partnership was upgraded to the level of a special and privileged strategic partnership. In April 2019, President Putin signed an executive order, awarding Prime Minister N. Modi the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle the First-Called for his distinguished contribution to the privileged strategic partnership between Russia and India and fostering friendly ties between the Russian and Indian peoples. The strategic status of relations is not exclusive for both countries; however, a profound mutual understanding on most of the issues on the contemporary and historical agendas is a unique feature of the Russian-Indian relations. The annual meeting of the leaders of the two countries did not take place in 2020; however, the next face-to-face summit is reportedly planned for 2021. The views of Moscow and New Delhi on the geopolitical situation in the two most important macroregions—Eurasia and the Asia-Pacific—where both Russia and India play an important role and where the two countries seek to smooth out the emerging divergence in approaches to their future deserve a separate analysis.
In April 2021, it was announced that a "two + two" dialogue with the participation of foreign and defense ministers would be established between Russia and India. India is already working with the United States, Japan and Australia in the same format.
In addition to the strong political ties, traditional cooperation in the energy sector, as well as military-technical partnership, is particularly prominent and important for both India and Russia. In September 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief guest at the 5th Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. The Russian Far East, a vast territory designed to become Russia's new gateway to Asia, is open for Indian business, striving to become one of the new engines for the development of the Russian-Indian ties.
The planned Vladivostok-Chennai maritime corridor will become an important new transport link connecting the Russian Arctic and the Far East with India. In this regard, the energy bridge between the two countries, which implies trade and investment in oil and gas, LNG, nuclear energy, coal mining and processing, will certainly expand, given the natural complementarity of the economies of the two countries. Cooperation in the field of renewable energy, on which India puts a clear premium, and in the hydrogen economy, are also under discussion. The co-production of COVID-19 vaccines is an important recent addition to the list of priority areas for bilateral collaboration.
Besides, Moscow and Delhi intend to expand military-technical cooperation using the advantages of localization within the framework of the "Make in India" and AtmaNirbhar Bharat ("Self-Reliant India") programmes that are actively promoted by the Indian government and personally by PM N. Modi.
However, for various reasons, as is well-known, economic cooperation between Russia and India lags behind the level of their expanded political partnership. In 2019, Russian-Indian trade turnover amounted to $11.16 billion (while Russian exports to India amounted to $7.24 billion, India's exports to Russia amounted to $3.92 billion). Before the pandemic, the governments of the two countries set a goal to triple their trade turnover to $30 billion and to increase bilateral investments from $30 to $50 billion by 2025. N. Modi and V. Putin identified the intensification of trade and economic relations as a priority area of bilateral cooperation. The establishment of a free trade zone between India and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is being considered.
Governments of India and Russia were tasked with identifying and removing the bottlenecks and obstacles to expanding economic ties. Russia's Ministry of Economic Development and India's Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion have launched fast-track, single-window mechanisms to facilitate smooth investments by Russian and Indian companies. "Invest India," an investment promotion and facilitation agency, established a special Russia desk to provide Russian businesses with a convenient platform for support and advice on investment issues. The Far East Investment and Export Agency, the Russian Export Center, Delovaya Rossiya, as well as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and other organizations promote direct contacts between Indian and Russian business communities. Two rounds of strategic economic dialogue took place between India and Russia: in St. Petersburg in 2018 and in New Delhi in 2019.
2020 was the year of Russia's BRICS chairmanship, and despite the fact that the BRICS summit, like all other work, had to be held remotely, Russia tried to make the content of this work most up-to-date and relevant to today's requirements. Thus, the topic of cooperation between the BRICS nations in digitalization-related areas was reflected in the 12th BRICS Summit Moscow Declaration adopted at the meeting. In the new Strategy for BRICS Economic Partnership 2025, one of the three main directions identified was—for the first time—cooperation in digital economy. 2021 is the year of India's chairmanship in BRICS, meaning that the topic of digitalization, which is very close to India, will undoubtedly find further reflection in the work of the grouping. In recent years, India has made tangible progress in promoting Internet penetration, digital literacy, e-government, financial technology, e-commerce and so on.
Digitalization as Russia's top priority
Digital transformation is now one of the top priorities for Russia as well. This was reflected in the appointment of Mikhail Mishustin as Prime Minister of the country in January 2020. Speaking at the State Duma in 2020, M. Mishustin noted: "Digital is the oil, gold and platinum of the 21st century. If we do not get digital, digital will get us." Prior to his appointment as Prime Minister, M. Mishustin headed the Federal Tax Service of Russia, where he managed to overhaul the work of this department on a completely new digital foundation and in a rather short time span. Russia has developed the National Technological Initiative (NTI), a long-term programme aimed at ensuring the leadership of Russian companies on new high-tech markets that will emerge in the global economy during the next 15-20 years.
Like India, Russia is now preparing to test and deploy 5G networks. The national "Digital Economy" programme (planned up to the year 2030) is currently under implementation. NTI and Russia's other efforts in the technological field can be coordinated with the strategic plans of India in similar areas.
Complementarity and new cooperation avenues
So far, India's experience with digitalization is not well-known in Russia. With some exceptions, Russian businesses are largely unfamiliar with the changes taking place in India. Although Russian and Indian IT-industries have evolved differently, new complementarities and new opportunities for collaboration between them are emerging. It is noteworthy that the Russian Association of Software Development Companies RUSSOFT, founded in 1999, was created following the example of the Indian National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM). Today, companies, such as MaximaTelecom (solutions for digital cities and businesses), Lighting Technologies (lighting systems for smart cities), Technonicol (advanced building materials), Zyfra (artificial intelligence and industrial solutions based on the Internet of Things), Tactise Group (advanced solutions in the field of labour protection and industrial safety), as well as state giants such as Rosatom (India's key partner in the nuclear industry), are actively involved in India's innovative development path.
However, there exists great potential for expanding this list. Despite severe competition with both Indian and international players, solutions from Russia are in demand, Indian businesses and the national government are willing to work with Russian companies in their own interests, regardless of possible pressure from the outside. Several investment funds of Russian origin are also working with India, building bridges and striving to blend Russian, Indian and international experience. These include Sistema Asia Capital, RTP Global, DST Global. These are experienced tech-savvy investors, representing "smart money", equipped with the knowledge of working with complex markets, such as India.
The two countries have the potential for cooperation in deep technologies, such as artificial intelligence, big data and analytics, machine learning, smart energy infrastructure, smart logistics, photonics and new materials, microelectronics and semiconductors, as well as blockchain and financial technologies. An important element of support from the governments on both sides could be the establishment of so-called regulatory sandboxes—so that experimental legal regimes could facilitate cross-pollination and testing of ideas between technology companies and start-ups from India and Russia.
Amid today's realities, India cannot be solely viewed as a potential sales market. It is necessary to work with India as a valuable partner. India welcomes foreign businesses that help address its challenges without aggravating the country's problems (in particular, unemployment and environmental degradation). India offers incentives to localize production and has unique experience in scaling low-margin products and services. Importantly, Indian businesses are going global very actively and can serve as a springboard for Russian solutions to enter international markets.
Another potentially important area of cooperation between India and Russia is cybersecurity. In the rapidly unfolding digital world, the environment where people and businesses operate is becoming increasingly permeable, while the space that needs protection is more and more difficult to delineate with a security perimeter. Securing critical infrastructure will require new approaches and principles that may be based on quantum technologies and quantum cryptography. Currently, a national cybersecurity strategy is under development in India, and the country is facing regular cyber-attacks on its infrastructure, which Indian regulators, knowing the complexity and ambiguity of this topic, rightly avoid attributing to any specific groups of cybercriminals or naming their origins. At the same time, India's Western partners rush to attribute these attacks to China or North Korea.
Against the backdrop of the global pandemic crisis, the dangers associated with high technology seem to have receded into the background. However, there is no doubt that the pandemic has significantly accelerated digitalization; and in the new digital world, national independence and sovereignty of countries are becoming more dependent on technology than ever before.
Over the years, Russia has consistently advocated for a broad international consensus under the auspices of the UN to work out the principles of international law to govern cyberspace. Meanwhile, in response to growing digital threats and in the absence of comprehensive international regulation, cyberspace is becoming increasingly regional. In a newly evolving international environment, there are likely to be several technology clusters, each with their own security principles. It is in the interests of both Russia and India to agree on these principles at an early stage, so as not to find themselves on different technological continents in the near future.
Given the constant and consistent striving of both countries for sovereignty and adherence to international law and the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, Russia and India are natural partners in the formation of a new digital world, and if their efforts are intensified, this will stand to benefit not only the two countries but also the international community as a whole.
In line with global trends and reflecting the accelerating technological transformation within India, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs announced in 2020 the creation of the New and Emerging Strategic Technologies (NEST) department that will deal with technology diplomacy, foreign policy and international legal aspects of the new technologies. This is expected to enable India to become more involved in the global debate on technology governance and to better advocate for the country's national interests in this context.
Lidia Kulik - Ph.D. in History, Head of India Studies at the SKOLKOVO Institute for Emerging Markets, Research Fellow at RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, RIAC Expert.