India-Hungary Acquaintance Deserves a Realistic Facelift

Overlooked in the shadow of India’s ‘major power’ oriented foreign policy discourse in recent times, a small country in Central Europe – Hungary – is keen to deal with India as a formidable global partner. During the first dialogue (20-21 January 2019) in New Delhi between the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) and the Hungarian Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (IFAT), the Hungarian Ambassador to India Gyula Petho, reiterating the history of multifaceted relationship between the two countries, pointed to the lack of vibrancy in their engagement, perhaps owing to the absence of any problem between them! Mr Petho, while looking forward to Sushma Swaraj’s scheduled forthcoming visit to Budapest followed by Hungarian President’s visit to New Delhi, put across Hungary’s eagerness to bring joie de vivre in its engagement with India.

Arguably, more than Hungary’s own interest to snug with India, India needs Hungary for its pressing strategic and economic imperatives. Especially to tap the potentials of the Visegrád and Nordic countries in its march towards ‘global power’ status, India needs to corroborate urgently Hungary’s ‘Eastern Opening’ policy by putting together a ‘Look Beyond West’ vision. Though Budapest is bound by European Union norms, and cannot go overboard on standalone proposals, Hungary’s backing and friendship in many areas would be extremely beneficial for India. A foothold in Central Europe would be of immense economic and geostrategic importance for India at a juncture when China is stretching its legs far and wide through connectivity-corridor projects. China has promised huge investments in the Eastern and Central Europe, augmented by the 16 (Eastern-Central Europe) +1 (China) process. Therefore, seven-decades of unblemished India-Hungary diplomatic relationship based on shared perspectives and cultural affinity now deserves a realistic facelift.

Central and Eastern Europe is undoubtedly “an area of promise for India” but yet to feature prominently in India’s foreign policy agenda. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Mihály Orbán, while hosting former Vice-President Hamid Ansari in Budapest in October 2016, has expressed unequivocal support for India’s international aspirations. Be it the reform of UN Security Council and India’s place in it, its efforts to contain terrorism through multilateral convention, or its bid for Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership, India would find a strong backing of Hungary at the global high tables.

As both India and Hungary conduct value based foreign policy where “national interests are not selected on an ad hoc basis, or shaped by various lobbies and group interests” rather by larger goal of global peace, synergy in foreign policy goals of New Delhi and Budapest is inherent; what needed is the highest political attention to tap mutual benefits through engagement on substantive issues. India is already the second largest investor from Asia in Hungary. There is enormous scope for it to be a stakeholder in Hungary’s infrastructural/developmental projects. As “Hungary is an integral part of the Trans-European Transport Network and located at the crossroads of four trans-European and two European Rail Traffic Management System corridors, it can enable easy access to all parts of Europe”. It would not be farfetched to suggest that Budapest can be a linchpin of the multi-modal International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) project that India is planning in cooperation with Russia, Iran, and others. This would facilitate Hungary and India to be each other’s bridge to Asia and Europe respectively.

To tap the investment and trade opportunities in Hungary, India must take advantage of prevailing goodwill. Many enabling legal agreements such as the double taxation avoidance agreement, bilateral investment protection and promotion agreement, social security agreement as well as agreements on cooperation in health, agriculture, IT, science & technology and defence are already in place between them. The Hungarian National Trading House (MNKH) has set up two new trading houses in India to find new opportunities for Hungarian companies in India as well as for Indian companies looking for European products, technology and collaboration opportunities. Though India’s investment in Hungary at the moment is meager (mainly confined to IT sector and pharmaceuticals), the scope for big economic collaborations is huge.

Around a dozen Indian companies including Apollo Tyres, SMR Automotive, Sun Pharmaceuticals, Orion Electronics Ltd., Sona BLW, Cosmos, TCS, WIPRO, Cognizant and Tech Mahendra are largely successful in Hungary and this list should grow. The Central European nations provide a lot of opportunities in the field of IT, biotechnology, automobiles, construction, energy, water and waste management. The National Building Construction Corporation (NBCC) of India, with the mandate to construct 20 million units of social housing, has signed a contract with the Hungarian lightweight house manufacturer Grémond Hungary Limited. “Today, bilateral cooperation extends not merely to commercial and investment partnerships but also to the fields of agriculture, food, defence, health including Ayurveda, oil exploration, science and technology, and educational and cultural exchanges.” This needs to be pursued aggressively by the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) and the Joint Business Council (JBC) to widen the trade basket to achieve full potential of co-operation.

Similarly, only half a dozen Hungarian companies are operating in India and their current investment is much below their potential. Only one significant investment can be noticed by the Hungarian Pharma Richter Gedeon which has invested USD 20 million in a joint venture with an Indian firm Themis Medicare Ltd. As far as bilateral trade is concerned, during January-October 2018 India’s total export-import is USD 617.2 million. For that matter, the entire Central European region accounts for only 1.2% of India’s exports, suggesting vast scope for expanding their economic engagements. India’s trade with Visegrad-4 (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) put together is close to $5 billion. Perhaps Indian apathy behind big trade and investment initiatives with Hungary is conditioned by their disproportionate size, and long distance. Even though Hungary pays special attention to India in its ‘Eastern Opening Policy’ framework and views India as one of the most dynamic Asian countries, “central and eastern Europe has not featured prominently in India’s foreign policy agenda” yet.

Nevertheless, India’s contact with Hungary in the cultural domain is multifaceted. Many in India narrate the common ancestry between Huns of Hungary and Chauhans of India though not fully endorsed by many Hungarians. Undoubtedly Hungarians have great respect and admiration for Indian culture, philosophy, art and spiritual thought owing to the hard work by the Hungarian Indologists. Sanskrit has been part of regular subject of study and there is considerable interest for Indian dances, music, yoga and meditations. The Cultural Exchange Programmes between India and Hungary are undertaken regularly and both countries have signed the Education Exchange Programme (EEP) in November 2014 to encourage cooperation between higher education institutions and the exchange of publications, educational materials and curricula. The India Cultural Centre, renamed as Amrita Sher-Gil Cultural Centre (ASCC) in Budapest organizes regular cultural and other events like Indian classical dances, music and yoga, exhibitions, film festivals, etc. All these will go a long way in driving their future engagements in every other domain.

Evidently India’s engagement with Hungary to date has been mostly economic and cultural; it is natural that their relations should acquire strategic character now, not least because of China’s sustained outreach. Their strategic partnership need not be built around a common enemy or conflict, but around common strategic concerns like scourge of terrorism, connectivity-corridors, military modernization and cooperation, and coordinated stand on pressing global issues like UN reforms, nuclear disarmament, nuclear security, etc. As their relationship has survived the vicissitudes of geopolitical vagaries in the previous century, it should now blossom to harness mutual strategic benefits. Time and again, Hungary has expressed its willingness to take this time-tested relationship to a higher trajectory; the onus therefore lies with India to promptly reciprocate and capitalize on Hungary’s strategic position and prevailing goodwill.

As a starting point of their prospective strategic engagement, both countries can jointly undertake historical studies to analyze the Cold War history in which India and Hungary played major roles. Especially, during the 1956 uprising in Hungary how India intervened promptly with the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev to save the life of Dr. Arpad Goncz’s, who later became President of Hungary (1990 to 2000). The two countries’ privileged position and engagements during the Soviet era needs to be revisited to draw lessons, if any, and shape their current bilateral relations by giving a strategic touch along the global geopolitical discourse of the twenty-first century.

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