Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven is coming to Mumbai on Saturday to take part in the Make in India fair, accompanied by a high-level delegation with representatives from 18 Swedish companies. During the two-day official visit, Löfven is scheduled to hold bilateral talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to bolster further bilateral ties that have been warming for a while.
In May-June 2015, President Pranab Mukherjee was the first Indian head of state to visit Sweden. Some months later, during a meeting in New York, Modi invited Löfven to take part in the Make in India programme, his ambitious initiative that aims to transform India into a global manufacturing hub like China.
For Swedish companies, India’s growing market is an important destination. Swedish exports to India were worth SEK 10,053 million in the first 11 months of 2015, as per the most recent statistics. This amounted to only 1% of the country’s total exports and made India Sweden’s 19th top market for exports, but there is, no doubt, a window for growth. It is to realise these prospects that Löfven is travelling to the Mumbai fair, where Sweden has the biggest country pavilion.
At the same time though, Sweden’s courting of Modi goes against its effort to recover the moral compass of its foreign policy.
Siding with minorities
Under Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, Swedish foreign policy has witnessed a major transformation. Within her famous “feminist foreign policy” rubric, the Scandinavian nation has reiterated its commitment to protect human rights and to stand up for minorities and the powerless. Wallström has not been afraid to stand up even to the two bullies of the Middle East – Saudi Arabia and Israel – despite the economic interests and political alliances at stake. This is why Sweden’s policy to cozy up to Modi is surprising.
For there’s no doubt that Modi is a controversial politician. He was unofficially banned from visiting the United States and European Union states for over a decade due to his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots in which hundreds of Muslims were killed. It was in 2008 that a Swedish diplomat, together with a Danish counterpart, interrupted that ban to reach out to Modi, claiming that “a boycott did not serve our purpose”. After that, the Swedish mission in Delhi persistently engaged with him over investment in Gujarat.
Clearly, Sweden has been more pragmatic in dealing with Modi than the pragmatic British who diplomatically opened up to him in 2012. Of course, time will judge whether this is pragmatism or pure folly.
After his visit to India in February 2015, US President Barack Obama had remarked that Mahatma Gandhi would have been shocked at the acts of intolerance in the country. Unfortunately, international community did not take note of the rising anti-democratic fascist tendencies in India. The community had self-interest in mind. With China’s slowdown, India has emerged as the world’s fastest-growing economy with a huge potential for new business. That explains why world leaders have been greeting Modi, in the words of Time magazine, like “teenage boys drooling over the homecoming queen”.
At what expense?
Business was also the reason for Sweden’s pragmatism in overlooking the ban on Modi in 2008, and business continues to be the reason for Löfven’s keenness for greater cooperation with India. But if business is the driver of its foreign policy, then why did Sweden critique Saudi Arabia and Israel? Wallström is right in accusing Israeli forces for “extrajudicial killings” of Palestinian protesters despite the threat to bilateral relations. But why then is Sweden overlooking the allegations against Modi of failing to prevent the killings of Muslims while he was Gujarat chief minister?
If Sweden is serious about its new foreign policy makeover, Löfven should officially raise concerns with Modi on the deteriorating state of human rights and religious tolerance in India. Secondly, he should ensure that Swedish investments in Make in India don’t lead to more ecological destruction, population displacement and labour exploitation.
It is important for him to remember what his foreign minister wrote in The Hindu before the Indian president’s visit to Sweden: “As a nation heavily dependent on exports, Sweden regards free trade as a driver of economic growth, but not at the expense of people or the planet.”
The writer is Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden. A version of this article appeared in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter.