Stockholm, the Syndrome
The Swedish embassy warned me to take an umbrella when I told them I was heading off to Stockholm for this year’s German Marshall Fund India Forum. “We were wrong,” admitted an embassy official two days later as the Scandinavian city sparkled under blue skies and bright sunlight. My sweaters never left my suitcase.
Sweden is the great power of the Nordic states. At its imperial peak it ruled Norway, Finland, the Baltic states, made a stab at north Germany before losing almost all of this in a land war with Russia. Stockholm has just enough grand old buildings, the opera house for example, to get a sense of that past and enough compactness to sense how abruptly it came to a close.
Stockholm’s beauty is that the sea seems to make an ingress into every part of the city centre. That’s because Stockholm is built on 14 islands and the government has carefully exploited this with shore paths and lots of greenery.
I was suitably surprised to find that over 140 Swedish companies operate in India today. Sweden exports about $ 2 billion worth of stuff to India every year. But Swedish firms in India contribute one billion dollars to India’s annual exports.
Nordic countries are all suprising economic powerhouses in their own way. Finland is an electronics giant thanks to Nokia. Sweden does technology and engineering. Norway, of course, is an oil and gas giant.
This means tiny states with some remarkable capabilities. “No other country with only 9 million people builds its own fighter aircraft,” said a Swedish official, referring to the Saab Viggen – one of the contenders for the Indian multi-role combat aircraft contract. (I told them the Indian Air Force loved the Viggen, but strategically it didn’t make sense for the country.) Sweden is already hunting for a fifth generation fighter partner.
So the Nordics have among the best educational systems in the world and carefully cultivated innovation cultures that better anything India and China have yet to develop. Swedish exports are worth more than those of India’s, in dollar terms.
Swedes moan mildly about how the best-selling murder mysteries of Stieg Larsson have made the world see them as perverts and murderers. I assured them for my eight year old daughter, Sweden was about Pippi Longstocking and Abba and neighbouring Finland about Moomins.
Helsinki airport has its own Moomin shop and I picked up a volume of the Moomin cartoons – Calcuttans may remember this strip ran in The Statesman for years. I gather they are an absolute craze in Japan. The Swedes make a claim here too: Moomin creator Tove Jansson is a member of Finland’s dominant Swedish minority. In keeping with their postmodern character today, Swedes made a valiant effort to argue their Viking ancestors were much maligned. “Mainly they were traders,” we were assured. “This seems a little doubtful,” a US congressional aide said to me afterwards. Not fair trade: I don’t put my axe in your head if you give me your gold.
The India Forum was a great group of people and the discussions wide ranging. Concern about China and Pakistan, concern about a stagnating Indo-US relationship, and concern about the barriers to India’s economic growth. But the answers, as tends to happen, were less obvious because much of it lay in political leadership – something the world is short of in a time of recession.
The Swedish participants were no more able to outline the framework for a more dynamic European Union – India relationship than any other continental diplomats have been in the past. This was not helped by a general lack of history between Sweden and India. But it could change. One Stockholm eminence noted that in December last year, Swedish figures showed that Indians were the single largest immigrant source in the country. And they were largely software workers. I found a few turbans in a Stockholm disco just before I left so there may be something going on. Sikhs with a taste for reindeer meat and lingonberry. Why not?