Getting to the Himalayas is not easy. It usually involves a hair-raising and gut-wrenching journey by bus or car or an agonisingly slow climb on a miniature train built by the British. Accessing the Alps on the other hand, is child’s play in comparison, thanks to a super-efficient network of mountain railways and cable cars. But in spite of differences in the journey, the end result is a magnificent view. Switzerland and India may be very different countries but they’ve been able to work together on many issues.
Politically, both are multiparty democracies that are simultaneously admired and disliked by their neighbours. India’s non-alignment policy and Switzerland’s neutrality helped both tide the Cold War. This political legacy lives on and both countries remain reluctant to take sides or rush into geopolitical alliances. Switzerland’s neutrality also helped serve India during the India-Pakistan war of 1971. Between 1971 and 1976, Switzerland represented Indian interests in Pakistan and Pakistani interests in India in its mediation role as a protective power.
Business is another area for common ground. Indo-Swiss cooperation began as a business venture in 1851, when the Volkart Trading Company established itself in Bombay. The first Swiss consul was the head of Volkart and the company played an important role in fostering early ties between the two countries. Indo-Swiss bilateral trade was worth CHF3.35 billion in 2014. India exported over $200 million worth of software and IT-enabled services to Switzerland in 2013-14.
A free trade deal between India and EFTA countries (Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland) could take bilateral trade to new heights. It has been on the negotiating table since 2008.
Science and technology is another area of cooperation. India is one of only seven non-European countries that has been given priority status by Switzerland for research cooperation in science and technology. An Indo-Swiss Joint Research Programme (ISJPR) aims to create links between researchers and research institutions. Swissnex India, the Swiss node for scientific exchange, has been operational in Bangalore since 2010 and helps researchers in setting up joint projects.
But the Himalayas and Alps, are also physical barriers that divide. And Switzerland and India remain divided on certain issues like secret banking and intellectual property.
Secret banking is considered almost sacrosanct in Switzerland and has been a pillar of the Swiss economy for decades. But it is a thorn in the flesh for India that views it as a means to funnel billions of undeclared rupees out of the country by tax dodgers. There is hope though. The treaty on automatic exchange of information that both countries have signed up to could put an end to this discord once and for all in 2018, pending approval of the Swiss parliament and perhaps the Swiss people as well.
India and Switzerland have big pharmaceutical sectors but a different understanding of intellectual property. Cutting edge patented pharmaceutical drugs are seen as a symbol of the Swiss pharma industry’s capacity for research and innovation. In India however, they are seen as overpriced monopolies based on tweaking existing patents that deny the poor access to affordable medicines. Drug patents are largely to blame for the glacial pace of the EFTA free trade agreement. However, recent developments hint at a softening of India’s stance on the patents issue.