External Affairs

As Crisis Unfolded in Iceland, Foreign Minister Sought Strong Ties With India

Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson was in India to push for greater cooperation in renewable energy.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj with Iceland's Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson during a meeting in New Delhi on Tuesday. Credit: PTI

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj with Iceland’s Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson during a meeting in New Delhi on Tuesday. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: The Panama Papers leak got its first victim with the resignation of Iceland’s prime minister, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, on April 6 – with its reverberations reaching India. Iceland’s Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson on a week-long visit to India, cancelled all plans to travel outside New Delhi and hotfooted back to Rejykjavik.

With Iceland finding itself on the front pages of world news eight years after the banking collapse, Sveinsson stoutly defended his besieged leader’s name as he lobbied for greater cooperation with India in renewable energy before leaving New Delhi.

“What they said was completely not correct,” said Sveinsson in answer to a question from The Wire at an event organised at the Iceland ambassador’s residence in a leafy south Delhi neighbourhood on Tuesday.

“There was nothing criminal,” he said about the allegations that surfaced on Sunday after the release of leaked documents from a Panama-based legal firm Mossack Fonseca about offshore accounts and tax shelters.

Sveinsson noted that Gunnlaugsson and his wife, who have been shown to own a shell company that held bonds of nearly $4 million in Icelandic banks, had been “living abroad for several years,” and that all their actions were strictly as “per legal terms”.

When asked whether he expected the controversy to eventually peter out soon, Sveinsson wasn’t very hopeful. “I don’t know… our political opposition will keep at it, I expect,” he said.

He was right. Even as Sveinsson had very productive meetings with three Indian ministers on Tuesday – back home, the political crisis was peaked.

Sveinsson had arrived at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport just after midnight on Saturday. On his first day – before the storm broke – he travelled to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal.

The Panama Papers were released around 11.20 pm India time on Sunday, April 3.

Sveinsson kept to his schedule on Monday, which included a tourism roadshow. Iceland has a muscular tourism strategy in place, especially showcasing its location for the other-wordly ‘beyond the wall’ scenes in the wildly popular TV series Game of Thrones.

Pushing for cooperation in renewable energy

Despite the crisis back home, Sveinsson kept at his schedule on Tuesday ­­–  plugging for increasing cooperation in renewable energy.

“Nearly 90% of our energy supply is from renewables. Fossil fuels are used mainly for transportation,” he said.

“This has mainly happened in the last 40-50 years. Earlier, our skies were grey, but now when you look up, it is bright, blue and beautiful,” added the minister.

Asked whether the steel-grey sky of Delhi seemed especially grim in contrast, he was diplomatic. “Delhi has a lot more people, lot more vehicles… Where we have reached now took a long time. It was a process,” he said.

Sitting on a chain of volcanoes, geothermal energy, which taps into the earth’s heat, accounts for over half of Iceland’s energy mix.

The NDA government has been trying to get India onto the renewable energy bandwagon, with more focus on solar and hydro-power. Late last year, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy had released a draft national policy on geo-thermal energy.

So far, 340 hot springs in seven states have been identified for their geo-thermal potential. While India is in a low geo-thermal potential region, the total estimated potential, according to the Geological Survey of India, is 10,000 MW.

Sveinsson said he hoped Iceland will have major part in helping India tap its potential in this sector.

The minister was carrying with him two project proposals for India’s consideration. “Icelandic firms are prepared to drill at their cost at two sites in India to demonstrate the potential for the technology,” he said.

The two sites identified are at Puga in Ladakh region for a 5 MW plant and a 10 MW plant at Tattapani, Chattisgarh.

The joint statement issued at the end of Sveinsson’s visit mentioned renewable energy, and geothermal energy was discussed during his meeting with the minister of state for power, Piyush Goyal.

“They discussed their mutual interest in promoting renewable energy and in cooperating in the area of geothermal energy, where Icelandic and Indian companies are exploring the possibilities of setting up joint ventures to harness geothermal energy in India.  The Ministers, furthermore, discussed the importance of the Global Geothermal Alliance for promoting the use of geothermal energy throughout the world,” the statement said.

The Arctic, Himalayas and other links

Along with harnessing the steamy vapours of a geothermal spring, India and Iceland have another common interest – the Arctic. Of course, the Chinese have already been tapping Iceland’s growth profile in Arctic policy debates, but India, also an observer of the Arctic Council, has ambitions in the north, mainly in the scientific realm.

Sveomsson said that India has been invited for the Article Circle conference, which is the premier annual event organised to address policy issues related to the northern polar region.

The bilateral document issued at the end of his visit mentioned this topic, comparing the need for “understanding better the implications of climate change for the ice covers and glaciers in the two regions” of the Arctic and the Himalayas.

“They also acknowledged that any economic activities in these ecologically fragile regions needed to be based on the principle of sustainable development,” it said.

The link between the Arctic and the Himalayas has been a personal interest for Iceland’s five-term president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson.

In fact, Grimsson has visited India six times in his 20 years as president. His Indian counterpart has, so far, made a single visit to Iceland, in May 2005.

Of course, Grimsson, who was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 2007, is also known to be close to the Gandhi family. In December 2015 when the BJP had again raised questions about the whereabouts of Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, close aide Milind Deora had tweeted a picture of himself and Gandhi at a conference in Aspen with Grimsson.

The BJP-led government also advocated for increasing the number of trips by high-level officials and business delegations, as per the bilateral document.

Sveinsson was scheduled to leave for Bangalore after his meeting with Nirmala Sitharaman, the minister of state for the commerce ministry. His final port of call was to have been Mumbai, before leaving for Iceland on April 10.

Instead, he took the first flight out, likely arriving in Reykjavik to find a new boss in place.