One of Narendra Modi’s most endearing qualities as India’s Prime Minister has been his ability to strike up an immediate personal rapport with other world leaders. Whether it is Shinzo Abe of Japan, Xi Jinping of China, Barack Obama of the United States, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Dilma Rouseff of Brazil, Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, Sushil Koirala of Nepal, Tony Abbott of Australia or Vladimir Putin of Russia, all of whom he has met during the past seven months, the story has been the same – warm handshakes and instant personal chemistry. The sole exception, of course, is Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, with whom he famously avoided eye-contact in Kathmandu before posing before the cameras shaking hands for the sake of salvaging the SAARC summit from the brink of collapse. But exceptions, as the saying goes, prove the rule. And the rule seems to be that Narendra Modi has the uncanny knack of turning on the charm and striking the right chord whenever he meets another Prime Minister or President. Nor are the new friendships restricted merely to good vibes at an individual level – mutually beneficial bilateral deals are struck and path-breaking strategic partnership agreements are signed.
Even good things, however, inevitably have a downside. By reaching out to every world leader he meets, Modi runs the risk at the global diplomatic level that all ordinary people face in day-to-day lives – arousing jealousy and suspicion by fraternizing with a friend’s enemy. This is precisely what seems to be happening in the case of the Indian Prime Minister’s very warm welcome to Vladimir Putin during the Russian President’s visit to India in early December. The United States and its Western allies were not amused. Putin was in New Delhi for a mere 22 hours. He arrived at 10.45 on a Wednesday night and departed at 10 p.m. on Thursday night. But during this brief visit he accomplished much – talks with Narendra Modi, signing billion-dollar deals in strategic fields like nuclear power, defence cooperation and oil, interacting with Indian business leaders, inaugurating the World Diamond Conference and dinner with President Pranab Mukherjee.
India took a conscious decision to ignore the fact that Putin is currently the world’s most controversial leader. In the eyes of Washington and most NATO nations, he is persona non grata. In March this year Putin was expelled from the G-8 club of wealthy nations after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, severe economic sanctions have been imposed on Russia for its alleged role in the horrific shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane over Ukraine. President Putin himself was openly snubbed and ostracized at the G-20 summit at Brisbane (Australia) in November. The Canadian Prime Minister cast diplomatic niceties aside by telling Putin: “I guess I will shake your hand, but I have only one thing to say to you – get out of Ukraine”. The Russian leader eventually left Brisbane before schedule without waiting for the Summit to end.
Modi knew all this. He was there at the G-20 gathering. Yet, when Vladimir Putin came to India on December 11, he must have been sure of one thing – he would get a very warm welcome; which is exactly what he got. This is in spite of the fact that in the new reality of global relations Russia is no longer India’s closest friend and ally. The United States and China occupy a higher priority in New Delhi’s global agenda, particularly in growth areas like trade and investment, infrastructure and manufacturing, and especially under the new Indian Prime Minister who has been vigorously wooing China, Japan and the US during his seven months in power. By all indications, the Modi-Putin interaction at New Delhi’s Hyderabad House was like a reunion of old friends. The talks they held were described as “extremely fruitful” and were crowned with the signing of 20 agreements, MoUs and commercial contracts. They put their stamp of approval on several major deals, including the building of a dozen new nuclear power plants and the assembling of 400 military helicopters. But what was even more apparent, judging by the media coverage, was that Putin and Modi had evidently forged a more than cordial personal relationship during their two previous meetings – one at Brisbane and the other at the BRICS summit in Brasilia. That personal rapport was again tangible in New Delhi after which the Indian Prime Minister made it a point to emphasize that Russia would remain India’s top partner in defence cooperation and nuclear energy. By all accounts the 15th Annual Russia-India summit was more than a symbolic ritual and was truly a milestone event.
Many of the announcements at the summit were made for the first time, and knowledgeable analysts say this means that the Russian-Indian cooperation really has reached a qualitatively new level. While it will only be possible to accurately evaluate the real outcome of the Modi-Putin meeting only after some time, when the plans that have been announced start being implemented, it appears that the summit’s results really do open up fundamentally new perspectives for cooperation. And it is not just about the 20 documents that were signed. This is perhaps for the first time in recent years that the documents encompassed such a wide range of issues that they should eliminate some of the imbalances that have characterised cooperation between two countries till now..
Modi significantly, and candidly, underlined a point that he could have avoided mentioning if he had wanted – that although India has “more options” in the present day world, it holds Russia in the highest esteem and this visit would further enhance the special friendship and strategic partnership. Putin’s choice of words was equally meaningful and effusive: “We highly appreciate the friendship, trust and mutual understanding with our Indian partners”, he said. Diplomatic observers have been closely watching the Modi-Putin meeting and even taking notes on the body language of the two leaders. The comment most heard is that in the present geopolitical situation where a virtual new Cold War seems to exist between Russia and the West, Russia probably needs India more than the other way around. It is assumed that Narendra Modi’s advisers might have studied the options in great detail and come to the conclusion that it is in India’s best interests to avoid any perceptible “tilt” one way or the other.
On the one hand, Russia, China and India are BRICS partners. On the other, as mentioned earlier, the United States and its NATO allies in Europe have gone to extraordinary and potentially perilous extents by blackballing Putin for his annexation of Crimea and his support to Ukrainian separatists. Some analysts feel that India does not entirely endorse the Western stand on Crimea and Ukraine. But apart from that the Indian government is acutely aware of the deepening trade and diplomatic relationship between Russia and China. Above all, the Modi government cannot afford to ignore the consistent and historic support that Russia has extended to India on all global forums for more than three decades since the 1971 strategic friendship agreement. Moreover, Russia’s involvement in India’s military in terms of hardware and technology is too deep and entrenched to phase out in the short term without severely disrupting and destabilizing India’s defence preparedness.
These and other factors have ensured that the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi has culminated in a reiteration of renewed vows to continue the very special relationship. Diplomatic analysts feel that when Barack Obama comes to New Delhi in January to attend the Republic Day Parade, the reception for him will almost certainly be much more high profile and effusive than during Putin’s one-day visit. But the US President will know that despite the ostentation and the hype, it would be unrealistic to expect to influence the Modi government to downgrade its ties with Russia. This however has not stopped Washington from conveying its displeasure in not-so-subtle diplomatic terms. During the daily press briefing by the US State Department, when the official spokesperson was asked about Putin’s Delhi visit, she said: “We have seen the reports regarding Indian businesses signing contracts with Russian businesses. We continue to urge all countries not to conduct business as usual with Russia”. You’re saying that business cannot go on as usual with Russia – other countries with Russia? Is that what you are saying? Yes. Given the situation, it shouldn’t be business as usual.
Did you speak to the Indians before the trip that it’s not the right time to do business with the Russian leadership?
Well, we’ve been engaged in that discussion. I’d remind you India doesn’t support the actions of Russia and their intervention into Ukraine. They’ve been pretty outspoken about that as well.
Do you have any reaction to the Crimean leader who was part of the official delegation of Putin to India?
We are troubled by reports that the delegation accompanying Putin may have included Sergey Aksyonov. We understand that the Indian Ministry of External Affairs has said they were not officially aware of his visit or his participation in the delegation. We’re seeking further clarification on that. So you say he may have been? You don’t know for sure? I don’t have any information to refute that. What I’m conveying is that our understanding is that the Indian Ministry of External Affairs was not aware that he would be part of the delegation.
Have you seen the joint statement that India and Russia are going to cooperate on nuclear and that they’re going to do the business in national currencies, like bypassing the international currency dollar?
I haven’t looked at the specific statement. We’ve seen press reporting on India concluding business, nuclear, and defence deals with Russia, but not confirmation of those agreements or specifics of what those agreements would entail. Our view remains that it’s not time for business as usual with Russia. But beyond that, we’d have to take a closer look at what these agreements entail. It is clear from these official transcripts that the Obama administration is not happy over India doing “business as usual” with Russia. However, when asked whether the deals reached during the Russian President’s Delhi visit would change President Obama’s plans to visit India in January, the spokesperson said: “No. India remains an important partner. Obviously, our economic relationship is a big part of what we continue to work on”. There the matter stands at the moment. But Washington has sent a signal that it is not pleased with India continuing to treat Russia as a special friend. Narendra Modi has got the message that in today’s world, which is hurtling towards a new Cold War-like situation, pursuing a policy of friendship towards all countries may be fraught with risks. For now, he has chosen to walk the tightrope and keep his options open.