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Indian president visits "Ancient Republic"

APJ Abdul Kalam, received a Swiss delegation led by Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin in 2003

(Keystone)

The Indian president, APJ Abdul Kalam, is paying a state visit to Switzerland this week, with the emphasis firmly on scientific and economic cooperation.

Accompanied by Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin, Kalam visited the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne on Thursday morning.

Swiss officials see increasing economic ties with India, which is currently Switzerland’s eighth largest trade partner in Asia, as a priority goal in years to come.

The subcontinent, home to well over a billion people, is projected to become the fourth-largest economy in the world by 2020.

On Saturday, Kalam and Schmid will visit the Bernese Oberland region, where the Indian president may recognise some of the magnificent alpine scenery beloved of India’s world-famous Bollywood film industry.

However, one of the highlights of the stay for Kalam – one of India’s best-known scientists and the former head of its guided-missile programme – took place on Wednesday, two days before the official start of the state visit.

After landing at Geneva airport on Wednesday, Kalam visited Cern, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory.

Visiting the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne on Thursday, Kalam was informed about current nanotechnology and neuroscience projects. Later in the day he and Couchepin travelled to Zurich to the country's other federal institute of technology.

The two men will even be able to catch up – Couchepin paid a state visit to India during his time as Swiss president in 2003, which focused on scientific and technological cooperation.

Old friends

Kalam and his Swiss hosts will also have plenty of more general memories to share.

Official ties between the two countries date back to 1948, when the newly independent state of India signed its first ever "friendship treaty" with a foreign state.

That state was none other the "Ancient Republic of Switzerland", in the words of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who praised the alpine state’s "democratic values and traditions".

But Joseph Koch, director of the Swiss Business Hub in India, says relations between the two countries go back much further than that.

Following military ventures by Swiss mercenaries in the 18th century, the two countries began a long history of trade relations, with the simultaneous establishment of two trading houses in Winterthur and Bombay (now known as Mumbai) dealing in commodities such as spice and cotton.

India is also said to have played a major role in the development of Switzerland’s once-famous textiles industry.

Rumour has it that a trader from canton Glarus returned from a trip to the region with the knowledge of the "batik" technique that helped kick-start Switzerland’s printing industry.

Economic ties

Koch says this long tradition of economic ties continues to be reflected in economic relations today.

"In India today, Switzerland still enjoys a good reputation that goes beyond its chocolates, watches and cheese. It is seen as playing a particularly important role in the area of innovation generally," Koch said.

"Be it in textiles or more generally, Indian companies today are prepared to pay slightly more for Swiss products – in particular machinery – in the knowledge that they are purchasing superior quality," he added.

Koch adds that, while many people still see India primarily as a "global service centre" – complementing China’s growing importance as a global manufacturing base – he is convinced that India also has "inherent strengths" in the manufacturing sector.

"As much as India has software specialists today, the country also has a massive pool of qualified engineering talent," said Koch, adding that the huge potential of the Indian economy is often underestimated.

Tourism

Switzerland is certainly proving a hit with Indian holidaymakers. More than 70,000 tourist visas were issued for Indian citizens last year, and demand is growing rapidly.

One thing that makes Switzerland special as a tourism destination is that many Indians already know the country from their own film industry in much the same way that Swiss moviegoers immediately recognise New York or San Francisco.

As Swiss Economics Minister Joseph Deiss told swissinfo in an interview last year: "A good Indian film that ends happily is almost obliged to do so on a Swiss mountaintop."

swissinfo, Chris Lewis

Key facts

Swiss exports to India totalled SFr1.02 billion in 2004, an increase of 37% on the previous year, while imports rose by 9.6% to SFr548.1 million.
Exports are topped by machinery and chemicals, while imports are led by textiles, chemicals and jewellery.
India also has a strong reputation as a service centre and a growing manufacturing base.

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