When you start talking about Sweden in India, what connotations do people have?
I think on the whole it's overwhelmingly positive. We're very happy about that, we're also emphasizing many of the values and innovations; things about Swedish life that we think are of interest to Indians. I mention innovation right at the outset because it is so important to both countries. If you look at one example, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Sweden, he and [Swedish Prime Minister Stefan] Löfven agreed on a joint action plan, which has innovation as a key focus.
India is modernizing very quickly; the government has delivered on a lot of economic and other reforms in the past few years. India climbed 30 points in the international Ease of Doing Business ranking from the World Bank, which was one of the biggest improvements, so they are also encouraging international partners to come to India. Swedish companies have been there for a long time: Ericsson has been established there for 115 years and now we say there are roughly 200 Swedish companies who are invested in and present in India, creating nearly two million jobs, including indirectly.
How is Sweden typically reported on by Indian media; does it gain much interest, and have you come across misrepresentations of Sweden the kind seen in other countries?
India has a large media market and a great tradition of free speech and newspapers. There's a large interest in Sweden in general, covering a lot of sectors – the opening of Ikea was covered very widely, and there's always interest in defence cooperation. I can't think of a single instance while I've been here where we've seen something either deliberately or accidentally misreported or misrepresented.
Sweden's ambassador to India, Klas Molin. Photo: Johan Oedmann/Regeringskansliet
What's your top priority in your role as ambassador?
Our government has jobs and job creation as one of its main focus areas, and since our economy is so export-dependent, facilitating trade and investment in both directions is a priority.
Promoting Swedish services and goods is a way of helping fulfill that goal so that's becoming a larger part of my job. We have a surplus with India in trade of goods, and India has a surplus with Sweden for trade in services. India is supplying a lot of the expertise in services, especially in the tech sector. We look to India and India looks to Sweden. We're very different in size but we rest on the same principles when it comes to human rights, democracy, and rule of law.
Can you give any examples of specific areas where India has looked to Sweden?
We like to look for areas of joint interest where we can develop together. There is an Indian secretary of health in Sweden right now, looking at healthcare and reform in that area. India is such a vast country with 1.3 billion people so any healthcare reform or modernization becomes humongous in scale.
Apart from that, trade and investment, space, and defence are all areas where we have cooperation already but are open to more.
And from the Swedish side, is there something specific you try to promote?
Modern Sweden is very much of interest. India is open to the world and looking for influences and new ideas. Ikea just opened its first store in India, and I think that showed there's a lot of interest in buying and getting inspiration in a new way.
Ikea is clearly a Swedish company but it took local sensitivities and customs into account – to mention one silly but very good example of how they adapted, instead of meatballs there are chicken and vegetarian balls in the cafeteria. I took part in the inauguration, and there were tens of thousands of people on the first day. It's amazing how this became a real 'happening', and people were interested in the Swedish, very modern way of life that is portrayed and sold.
Could Ikea help inspire more Swedish companies to reach out to India, to show that they can succeed in a very different environment?
Well, Ikea is a global player; they are very adaptable with many stores worldwide, they are an extreme. But it's interesting to look at the other extreme too, the small and medium sized companies. Part of this Joint Action Plan is a desire of our leaders to encourage startups and new businesses.
Few places are more interesting at this point in time than India, with a very young, very dynamic, very large population and many are well educated and tech savvy; internet penetration is growing exponentially. Leveraging this kind of growth and interest is tremendously important and Sweden is well placed to take part in this revolution.
Sweden cannot satisfy its own demand for tech workers, a demand which looks set to continue over the coming years. The Swedish tech sector needs these educated workers, and Indians are the largest non-EU group in this profession. Then of course the larger the community here, the larger the demand for family of friends to visit; for family visas and tourism, and we welcome that. Otherwise the flow is usually in the other direction, because Sweden is the smaller partner by far.
Is the embassy involved in tackling issues with work permit applications and renewals, which have led to deportations of foreign workers including Indian tech workers?
It's not really for me to talk about the work permit issues; decisions are made in Sweden and not at the embassy. We see an increase in applications, and we do everything we can to facilitate and avoid it a bottleneck. Companies (in Sweden) will lose competitiveness otherwise, but of course there's been a lot of pressure on the migration agency in recent years.
On another topic, how is Sweden's feminist government and foreign policy received in India?
It hasn't gone unnoticed. India's female foreign minister is part of a network of women foreign ministers that Margot Wallström was one of the driving forces behind. We make feminism a part of everything we do, including in security and the UN for example.
In India we have cooperation when it comes to training and exchange with peacekeeping troops: Sweden and India are both large contributors and there's continuing exchange where the component of Women, Peace and Security has become a mainstay.
In terms of gender values, India is viewed as traditional while Sweden is modern. Could they learn from each other?
You find everything in India. Some people in India's large cities, especially young people, may be closer in lifestyle to Stockholm or Malmö than to other parts of India, while some people do live very traditional lifestyles. That's what pluralism and democracy is all about – co-existing within and between countries, so it's not for one to tell the other what to do.
There are universal human rights, so we should of course speak out if we see things that are contrary to universal values or human rights. But India is a great country with thousands of years of history and culture and a large degree of sophistication in many ways. We should be happy to discuss and share experiences on new ways of existing, but respect those years of culture.
And what can Sweden learn from Indian culture?
Some of the things the government is trying to interest the world in, such as the wonderful food, ayurveda, yoga and wellness, philosophy and religion – I think there's a growing interest in these kinds of traditions, in a large part of the world including Sweden. In Sweden young people are starting in huge numbers to turn to vegetarianism and even veganism, and this has been happening in India for a long time; a large proportion of the Indian population is vegetarian. So there are many similarities and areas of interest, and I see this increasing.