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Home / Opinion / Views /  When Modi plays vishwaguru with Putin

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Uzbekistan for the 22nd meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Council of Heads of State was just 24 hours long. The short trip to Samarkand, the site of much history and culture, was nevertheless, an opportunity for Modi to subtly play up a trope from India’s own cultural past. Much like the Chinese under Xi Jinping have been promoting the idea of ‘Chinese wisdom’ and emphasized the uniqueness of Chinese culture and history, Modi has also talked of India’s role as vishwaguru, a preceptor to the world at large. At his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin—by far the most significant bilateral meeting the Indian leader had—Modi gently admonished and advised the man who had launched the invasion of Ukraine.

Modi begins by giving Putin due respect by discussing “the problems of the world" with him. He then quickly identifies the “biggest concerns" as “food security, fuel security, fertilizers" while also positioning himself as speaking on behalf of “especially the developing countries".

As befits a teacher, however, Modi is quick with directions to Putin—“We must find some way out and you too must contribute to that." Modi does not beat about the bush when he says “that today’s era is not of war" reminding the Russian leader “we have spoken to you many times on the phone that democracy, diplomacy and dialogue are such things that touch the world". He quickly carries on saying, that the meeting was “a chance to discuss how we can move forward on the path of peace".

At the same time, the Indian Prime Minister is not unaware, especially at a meeting of Central Asian countries, of the reality of India’s lack of political influence, diplomatic capacity and economic capability in the region. A vishwaguru must, like Dronacharya did while advising or admonishing princes, also be able make his living and look after his own interests. Given that Modi did not meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping—which really would have been the most important bilateral meeting from an Indian standpoint—it was important for the Indian Prime Minister to locate India-Russian relations carefully in his order of international priorities.

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There should be no doubt that the BJP-led Indian government is aligned with the Americans for a variety of reasons ranging from the strength of the party’s support base among diaspora Indians in the US to possibly simply wanting to go in the other direction from Jawaharlal Nehru’s courting of the USSR and the Third World. However, it is also part of the BJP’s political philosophy to counter Western cultural and political influences. In this regard, Russia under Putin is a useful ally for the Indian government as it is also for the Party-state in China.

Thus, India and Russia “have been such friends who have been with each other every moment" that the world knows that this is “an unbreakable friendship". However, while Modi did—in his own inimitable style—refer to their first meeting in 2001 when both Putin and he were starting out in charge as leaders of their respective governments, he was careful not to make the friendship personal. The Russian President, by contrast, referred specifically to Modi as “my friend" and “my dear friend" and even to the latter’s upcoming birthday.

And again, as befits a teacher, Modi steps above the fray by putting Russia and Ukraine on equal footing in his conversation with Putin by thanking both countries for their help in getting out Indian students stranded in Ukraine at the beginning of the conflict.

This cannot have gone down well with the Russians. It is important to remember that Putin is himself leader of a country with a strong sense of both historical greatness and grievance. In his time in power, he has constantly emphasised the need to return Russia to its former greatness—also a role that involves directing partners what to do.

In their official transcript of the Modi-Putin meeting, the Russians, for example, translate Modi’s remarks about the first meeting between the leaders in 2001 to highlight a strong personal bond between them.

Meanwhile, Putin does acknowledge India’s “position on the conflict in Ukraine and the concerns that you constantly express" but blames the Ukrainians for “abandoning the negotiation process".

Unlike Modi, however, Putin is eager to discuss issues beyond Ukraine, referring to economic ties including the supply of Russian fertiliser to India as well as “large joint projects in the oil and gas sector and in the nuclear power industry" underway. He also calls for a major initiative in the form of visa-free tourist travel between the two countries in the context of interest among Russians for “the rich history and ancient culture of India".

This might be Putin’s bow to Modi’s vishwaguru concept and the Indian desire to be appreciated on this front, but more likely it is simply smart politics required to tide over a time of difficulty in Russia’s external relations.

The Russian leader was, nevertheless, forthright stating that it is “important" that both countries “constantly coordinate" their positions. Highlighting Russia’s eight-fold increase of fertiliser supply to India, Putin also referred specifically to the “Indian farmers… [and] the difficult challenge of providing food for the country’s population"—a not-so-subtle reference to Modi’s recent problems with his farming constituents.

Clearly, there can be more than one vishwaguru in global politics.

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