The world steers clear of uncle Modi

Published: Jun 17, 2019, 07:29 IST | Aditya Sinha

No matter what the Indian Prime Minister does or how much of a colossus he becomes, the Russians can never feel comfortable with him

The world steers clear of uncle Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani PM Imran Khan, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev at a photo shoot prior to a meeting of the SCO Council of Heads of State in Bishkek on June 14. PIC/AFP

Aditya SinhaA picture is worth a proverbial 1,000 words, though I only have 800 for last weekend's click of the eight heads of government at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. It features Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan, and the Chinese and Russian Presidents, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, among others. Modi is standing alone at the far end, joylessly, avoiding the Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev next to him. Imran is just off-centre, the Tajik and Uzbek heads beyond him. In almost every photo from the SCO meeting, Imran is in animated, friendly conversation with Putin. You might even mistake Putin for a cricket fan.

World leaders, especially strongmen like Putin, have long relied on the power of propaganda and are canny about the news photos being taken. Nothing is casual or coincidental or accidental. This is easily confirmed if there are a series of "casual" photos — like Putin and Imran in animated discussion at a table. Putin is conveying that Imran is his buddy.

One might think that the Russians could never bring themselves to forgive or forget Pakistan's role in the USSR's 1979-89 debacle in Afghanistan. [The USSR was Russia's predecessor state.] The Pakistan army's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, backed by the USA's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), provided much arms, training and refuge to the Afghan Mujahideen who fought the mighty Soviet army in that war, which turned out to be the USSR's Vietnam. It exposed the weakness of the Soviet model of communism, and aided its demise. In international relations, however, there are no permanent friends or enemies. The main reason for a newfound friendship between Russia and Pakistan is Afghanistan. The US has been stuck in Afghanistan for 18 years and US President Donald Trump is impatient to withdraw his troops, going to the extent of holding negotiations in Qatar with the hardline Islamist Taliban. [India, in its eye-rolling "eternal wisdom" has not engaged any section of the Taliban during all these years, despite the Taliban's antipathy to Pakistan and its overbearing ISI.] In short, there is geopolitical flux in our region, and Russia sees a chance to get a toehold in.

One of my co-authors in last year's bestseller — The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace — was former ISI chief Asad Durrani, who has himself been wooed by the Russians for his expertise in Afghanistan. He first went there in 2012, as part of a conference on nuclear matters, but by his own account it was a ruse; he found himself spending more time with the Afghan specialists in government and at think-tanks, than with the nuclear experts. He again went there in 2017 for the same purpose. [The Pakistan government has now barred him from leaving the country because of the revelations in our book.]

India used to have a deep relationship with the USSR: we used to buy all our arms from the Soviet Union, we had a flourishing rupee-rouble trade, Raj Kapoor was a hero there, they trained our engineers, etc. This relationship irritated the Americans. It changed once the USSR collapsed and India began moving closer to the US; things nose-dived after the 2005 Indo-US nuclear deal. India has been trying to pacify the Russians occasionally, but its deepening strategic ties with the US, aimed at the Indo-Pacific region is our compulsion.

The Soviets had an especially cosy relationship with the Congress party, which dominated Indian politics till the time Modi came to power. Now, no matter what Modi does or how much of a colossus he becomes, the Russians can never feel comfortable with him.

Part of Putin's bonhomie with Imran might have been to send a message to India of the cards that the Russians can play. He might have wanted to caution India against capitulating to Trump's pressure on Modi to give up the R40,000 crore purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence missile system, and against capitulation on purchasing oil from Iran. Also, India never had tariff troubles with the USSR.

What of Modi? His diehard supporters and propagandist media should tell us why he looks lonely. After all, he won the election not because of the economy but because he ostensibly taught Pakistan a lesson by bombing a terrorist camp in Balakot, even though the international community has not seen any dead terrorists. His supporters claim he raised India's profile on the world stage. One wonders. His ministers talk of Sage Kanad conducting a nuclear test lakhs of years ago, and of the unverifiability of Darwinism; Modi himself claimed that Lord Ganesh's elephant head was the triumph of prehistoric plastic surgery. Perhaps the rest of the world sees Modi, and India, as a cranky superstitious old uncle that one best steer clear of.

Aditya Sinha's latest book, India Unmade: How the Modi Government Broke the Economy, with Yashwant Sinha, is out now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to

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