New Delhi: When Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom tweeted earlier this month that the people of Kashmir “must be included” in decisions concerning their future, it not only touched a raw nerve in the Modi government but also brought to the fore the nearly-century long roller-coaster relationship between New Delhi and Stockholm.
“Closely following serious developments in Kashmir. The population of Kashmir must be included in decisions concerning its future,” she posted on 10 August.
Closely following serious developments in Kashmir. The population of Kashmir must be included in decisions concerning its future.
— Margot Wallström (@margotwallstrom) August 10, 2019
India and Sweden have always had an atypical diplomatic relationship even though both sides have established sound business and investment ties that go back to the early 1920s.
This time, however, Stockholm was quick to control the damage. On 21 August, Wallstrom once again tweeted on the issue, after a phone-call with her Pakistani counterpart S.M. Qureshi, but toed the Indian line on the issue. “EU, including Sweden, supports a bilateral political solution between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, dialogue through diplomatic channels is crucial,” she said.
Worrying situation in Jammu and Kashmir. In a telephone call today with Pakistan’s FM H.E. Shah Mahmood Qureshi I stressed that the EU, incl. Sweden, supports a bilateral political solution between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, dialogue through diplomatic channels is crucial.
— Margot Wallström (@margotwallstrom) August 21, 2019
The episode only affirms the contradictions in the ties between the countries, evident even on the Jammu and Kashmir issue.
Swedish armed forces have historically been a part of the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) since its inception in 1949. But ever since India rejected the UN body’s role, following the 1972 Simla Agreement, Sweden has never pushed India to rethink its decision.
The UNMOGIP supervises the ceasefire between India and Pakistan along the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir. While India has rejected its role, Pakistan continues the practice of keeping a record with the UN body on ceasefire violations across the LoC.
Sweden has always maintained a mature and delicate balance between India and Pakistan, never crossing the so-called “red line” of offering to mediate on the Kashmir issue. Even on the abrogation of Article 370, Stockholm has generally chosen to follow the stance that the European Union has taken on the matter — that it should be dealt with bilaterally.
“The tweets may have been just for domestic consumption,” the former Indian ambassador to Sweden, Banashri Bose Harrison, told ThePrint. “Without being defensive in any way, however, it may be useful to take friendly and truly democratic countries such as Sweden into confidence and inform them of the intricacies and complexities of the situation so that they know how to respond to Pakistani overtures on the matter.”
Besides championing human rights causes, Sweden has a large number of Muslim immigrants, and hence, a powerful lobby could be at play there. “That lobby has been quite successful in motivating the Swedish government to take strong positions on the Palestine and Kurdish issues. Kashmir might be possibly added to that now,” said Ashok Swain, Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at the Sweden-based Uppsala University.
India-Sweden ties: From Bofors guns to Ikea table mats
India has always been a market of immense opportunities for Sweden, with Stockholm selling everything from table mats to warplanes here.
At a time when Indian consumers were beginning to learn the concepts of single-brand and multi-brand retail, and that too affordable at that, it was Sweden that entered the country with Ikea and H&M. Ikea had first announced its plans to foray into India in 2008 but opened its first store, after a decade-long wait, at Hyderabad in 2018. H&M entered the country in 2015.
Defence ties between India and Sweden also go back several years. The turning point, however, was in 1986 when India, then under former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, signed an agreement with Swedish defence major Bofors to procure 155-mm Howitzer field guns.
This eventually turned into a huge political controversy post which defence cooperation between India and Sweden took a backseat for a long time.
“There was a huge schism that developed between India and Sweden post the Bofors scandal,” said the former Indian ambassador to Sweden Ashok Sajjanhar. “It took a long time for the defence ties to normalise after that episode.”
Since the Bofors scam, Sweden has become “extremely cautious” of forging defence deals with India but despite that, it has never shied away from participating in big-ticket deals, including the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal.
In 2016, when the Modi government conducted the much-talked-about ‘surgical strikes’ on Pakistan, Indian para commandos were believed to have used the Carl Gustav-84 mm rocket launchers, made by the Swedish weapons firm Saab, to hit the terror launchpads.
The Gripen deal
Sweden is now keenly looking at selling its Gripen warplanes to India under the Modi government’s $12 billion fighter jet deal.
Saab, the maker of Gripen, was ready with a plan to build the fighters in the country under the ‘Make in India’ programme in 2016. It had even announced its collaboration with Adani for the project in 2017. However, with the delay by the Indian government in moving ahead with the procurement process, the Swedish government is gradually “losing patience”, sources said.
Sweden was hopeful of selling the fighters and that is why, Swain stresses, it went “out of its way to make Modi’s visit as appropriate to satisfy his ego”. Modi had visited Sweden in April 2018 to take part in the first-ever India-Nordic Summit; he was the first Indian PM to do so in 30 years. The last PM to visit the country was Rajiv Gandhi in 1988.
“India’s economic troubles are also now known to Swedes,” Swain said. “So, they don’t have much hope compared to what they used to have a year back.”
Harrison agrees. “It seems that even after the many improvements in defence procurement procedures, they feel they don’t always face a level-playing field,” she said.
Not all rosy
The ties between the two countries ever since the Modi government took over has not been all that rosy.
India and Sweden had a minor diplomatic tiff during the Balakot airstrikes earlier this year when it came to light that the Pakistani Air Force had deployed ‘Erieye’ airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system that Islamabad had procured from Saab. This had led to India lodging an official complaint with the Swedish government at that time, sources told ThePrint.
Once again Sweden is keenly watching India as New Delhi plans to roll out 5G network across the country. Swedish Ericsson is one of the contenders in the 5G race.
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