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Review September 2023

Shifts in Indian and Central European relations from the Cold War to today

Review by Priya Vijaykumar Poojary
edited by Rajendra K. Jain, 2021
ISBN 9789811628498
467 Pages
Published by: Palgrave Macmillan
Busy street in 1960s India. Colour picture. People in front of a large yellow building with various shop signs and advertising signs. Fortepan/Miklós Lőw

Throughout history, regions have emerged as spaces shaping the regional and global dynamics of the broader political and security architecture. Since the Russia-Ukraine war, Central Europe as a region has witnessed major political and security transformations that are redefining the geopolitics of Europe. The region has long been seen as an area of competing Western and Russian influence, and has, thus, predominantly featured less in the Indian foreign policy imagination. The book India and Central Europe: Perceptions, Perspectives and Prospects edited by Rajendra Jain is a welcome addition to the literature on India’s engagement with Central European countries. It is a timely contribution as it captures the current transitions in India’s approach, underscoring the importance of Central Europe in the country’s strategic calculus, and also highlights the re-energized Indian foreign policy against the backdrop of an evolving geopolitical situation. At the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, India’s position generated numerous debates and assumptions as it abstained from voting on the subsequent UN General Assembly resolutions, thus fuelling difficulties for its foreign policy. It drew staunch criticism, raising questions from its Western allies, particularly from countries in the region such as Poland, on its “ambiguous” posturing on the war. 

And this begins with a major shift in India’s perception of these countries, which it has traditionally viewed through “Moscow’s prism”

However, India’s position must not be viewed as supporting Russia in its aggression or mistaken for continuing Cold War era non-alignment policies. India pursues its interests, and while remaining dependent on Russia in key strategic areas, it is also attempting to reduce its structural dependence on Russia. New Delhi is wary that the war has also changed the contours of Russia’s partnership with China, with regards to the “No limits” partnership and, has certainly enabled India to revaluate its approach to Central Europe and to attempt to de-hyphenate the two. Indian foreign policy now seeks a “new non-Russian future” in which it is no longer constrained by Moscow or any form of leverage that it has traditionally enjoyed. Thus, for Indian long-term foreign policy strategy, and to deal with the geopolitical fallout of the war, India realises the importance of strategically engaging with the countries of Central Europe. And this begins with a major shift in India’s perception of these countries, which it has traditionally viewed through “Moscow’s prism” and is now ready to appreciate the region’s “salience and independence” in its entirety. 

Through the various chapters in the book, the authors analyse the long-term relations between India and Central Europe and the transformations that their ties have undergone. It departs from the conventional understanding of India’s engagement with the region historically as a subset of Soviet relations and limits itself to the economic salience of the region in contemporary times. Further, the book also underlines that India-Central Europe engagements do not reflect the potentials of their partnerships, owing to significantly low trade relations, limited high-level political dialogue, and also an information deficit. 

Subsequently, the book is systematically presented and structured with eleven chapters which include an introduction, India’s relations with individual countries – Czechia, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia – and, lastly, a focus on economic engagement with the region in the form of the Visegrád 4 (V4). The book resonates with the broader yet limited discourse on India and Central Europe’s relations, which owing to diverging interests has weakened all possibilities of cooperation between the two. While the central focus of the book is on relations in recent years, there is an attempt to dive into the history of these relations and to present them as not new and as going back in time. Rajendra Jain in his chapters provides a critical analysis of the role of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, and also that of the succeeding Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in their engagement or disengagement (as many would consider) with Central Europe. Jain indicates in-depth the drivers that shaped India’s relations with the region – whether it is the appeal of India’s political ideas and models, the country’s success in the field of science and technology, increasing economic interest by Central European and Indian business people, India’s attractive educational landscapes and most importantly the long-standing people-to-people connect. 

Further, Pramit Pal Chaudhari in his chapter argues that India’s engagement with Central Europe has undergone three distinct phases: the Soviet period, the post-Cold War period, and the early 2000s. The Soviet period witnessed India’s engagement with the region as a subset of Soviet relations which ultimately continues to dominate in the present times. The post-Cold war era, on the other hand, was met with complete disengagement from Central Europe. Both India and Central European countries also diverted their focus on restructuring their socialist economic policies and paving the way for liberalisation. Similarly, the Central European countries were also pre-occupied with the desire to join NATO, the European Union and a plethora of new Western organisations to ease the process of the post-Soviet transition of Europe. The third phase, on the other hand, coupled with the recession, Brexit, the rise of China, and India’s expanding geoeconomic footprint enabled renewed engagement between the two. And now the Russia-Ukraine war will mark a fourth phase in their relations as both India and the V4 deal with the geopolitical fallout of the war. 

Interestingly, the book also captures the differences in perceptions of Indians towards the region and vice versa which has been missing in the broader literature. Of specific interest, which Jain highlights in-depth in his chapter, are the several debates that took place on topical issues relating to Central Europe, including the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 in the Indian Parliament. Through the Parliamentary archives, Jain presents how political events such as these resulted in ideological polarization within the Congress party. Quite a few prominent Indian leaders at the time became highly critical towards the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and rebuked the government for not taking a strong stand against the USSR. This followed a series of very intense and heated debates within the Indian Parliament, challenging to an extent the existing orthodoxy that India has not engaged sufficiently on issues affecting Central Europe. 

India […] is also closely monitoring these developments in the region as it remains anxious to counterbalance Beijing’s expansive powers.

One criticism of the book is the limited attention given to the increasing footprint of China in the region vis-à-vis Brussel’s hardening stance. In the last decade, Central European countries have been increasingly trading with China. Among them, Czechia and Poland are China’s major trading partners while Hungary receives the highest amount of foreign direct investment (FDI). Many have argued that China’s steadily increasing engagement with these countries especially through the 17+1 cooperation mechanism, is seen as divisive in nature. India, on the other hand is also closely monitoring these developments in the region as it remains anxious to counterbalance Beijing’s expansive powers. In their chapter, Karina Jedrzejowska and Anna Wrobel argue that it is the lack of a coherent strategy on India that has allowed the Chinese penetration in the region, although this is insufficient an argument to understand the complexity of how Beijing engages in the region. 

And while the book has done an exceptional work in presenting India-Central Europe relations historically, it does not, however, provide any theoretical insights on the subject. Overall the book provides a comprehensive analysis of India’s engagement with these countries, which is important for Indian foreign policy makers as they attempt to carve a roadmap for their relations in the future. It reasserts that India and countries of the V4 must assume a more strategic element in their relations. And the engagement seemingly comes from both sides, as witnessed in Czechia’s strategy on the Indo-Pacific region (central to India’s foreign policy interest) in May 2022, enabling New Delhi to recognise these countries as potentially significant partners to be engaged with outside the economic domain. 

Priya Vijaykumar Poojary is a Lecturer at the Manipal Centre for European Studies. Her work focuses on EU foreign policy with a specific focus on EU-India relations. She has co-edited a book entitled Contours of India-EU Engagements: Multiplicity of Experiences. She was a Marie-Curie EU Co-fund visiting fellow at Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (BIGSSS) and a beneficiary of an Erasmus+ teaching fellowship at the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn, Poland and the University of Wroclaw, Poland. She has published several journal articles, book chapters and newspaper columns. She was also a Schuman Trainee at the Directorate-General for the External Policies of the Union-Unit for Asia, Australia and New Zealand (AANZ), at the European Parliament.