Power of hugs: How Putin-Modi personal chemistry drives the Russia-India strategic partnership
The photos and video clips are there for everyone to see. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are very happy in each other’s company. We’ve seen them holding hands and posing for pictures in St. Petersburg on the sidelines of Russia’s most important economic forum, sharing a ferry ride away from Vladivostok and greeting each other with warm hugs, whether at the Sochi-Adler airport or outside the Hyderabad House in New Delhi.
Even when pundits and commentators assumed in the early stages of Modi’s premiership that the two leaders were not overly fond of each other, Putin told a Russian TV reporter that the Indian Prime Minister suggested that he practice yoga as a way of further enhancing his fitness. While making those comments, the Russian President added that the Indian leader was his ‘personal friend.’
So what’s behind the bromance between these two leaders? The biggest no-brainer is the fact that the two men can have a conversation that lacks both condescension and lecturing. The chances of Putin expressing any concern about Indian social problems or Modi enquiring about Russian internal politics is next to zero. Unlike their partners in the West, who enjoy preaching to the leaders of both countries, the brief summits and personal conversations between Putin and Modi focus on cooperation between the countries, and yes, of course, sensitive bilateral issues are ironed out behind closed doors.
There’s also the factor of legitimacy that the leaders draw from each other. Putin gets a red carpet welcome from the world’s largest democracy. India also would never vote against Russia at the United Nations or any other multilateral forum.
As for Modi, it helps when a major military and geopolitical power more often than not sees eye-to-eye with India on international issues. The Indian Prime Minister summed it up best when he wrote an article for the Russian paper of record ‘Rossiyskaya Gazeta’ in 2017, on the 70th Anniversary marking the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Russia.
“The resilience of our relationship is based on the fact that it rests on the principles of equality, trust and mutual benefit,” Modi wrote. “We have adapted our partnership to the different stages of our national development and to the changing realities of the international context. We have been together in times good and bad.”
Modi has been visiting Russia since the early 2000s and as a man who notices the smallest details, the Indian leader is no doubt impressed with what his Russian friend has managed to achieve in 21 plus years in the government. Given the fact there is no term limit for a prime minister in India, Modi would be happy to have as much time to transform India’s infrastructure and social indices as Putin has had with Russia. Sure, Putin, now 69, became president at the age of 47 and had youthful energy on his side, but Modi is energetic and young at heart, and yoga and a good diet keep him going. 71 is still a young age for a politician in India.
One thing the two leaders certainly have in common is their love for health and fitness. Putin’s prowess in martial arts is well known, and ever since he became president, he’s been promoting a healthy lifestyle. Two decades, the Sochi Winter Olympics and FIFA World Cup later, Russia has once again become a sporting power. Modi prefers yoga to martial arts and has been at the forefront of promoting the Indian physical and spiritual practices abroad. It’s to his credit that the world celebrates an international yoga day every year.
The Dragon in the Room
Like all relationships in life, the Putin-Modi friendship has and will have moments that test them. The Russian leader enjoys a very good friendship with Xi Jinping. Russia and Putin would do anything to bring India and China together, but the relationship between the Asian giants has been on a freefall over the last few years.
There’s no doubt that Modi gets complaints about the Russia-China relationship from his officers at the Ministry of External Affairs. But Russia has walked a tightrope and stayed clear of any kind of interference in the India-China quagmire.
Surely, at some level, Putin, too, is irritated with the growing Indo-American engagement. But then again, as someone who has known the Washington establishment for that long, the Russian President is aware of India’s wariness to fully commit to the American camp.
If anything, the global pandemic and the situation in Afghanistan has brought Russia and India closer. The Russian commitment to India, with Putin’s blessings, made it among the first countries to issue visas to Indian citizens and establish an air bubble. This bubble did not burst even in May 2021 when Delhi and other cities in northern India bore the brunt of Covid-19. This and Russia’s repeated commitment to better ties with India bode well for the bilateral relationship.
A brief visit
Putin’s trip will be brief. No big photoshoots and symbolic talks and lectures outside the summit, but such is the nature of these annual meetings. The late-Russian Ambassador to India Alexander Kadakin had this to say about the annual meetings in 2014: “The very nature of the Russian-Indian summits is determined by the fact that the leaders of the two states, connected by long-standing ties of deep trust and mutual understanding, communicate at them. This is a dialogue of close friends, which does not require many conventional protocol gestures or long exchanges of pleasantries, and even more so--protracted discussions or disputes. This is a dialogue aimed at achieving practical, tangible results.”
We are sure to see more images of camaraderie and friendship between Putin and Modi when the former lands in New Delhi after a gap of three years. Given the Covid protocols in place, one wonders whether they will actually hug each other this time or settle for a smile and a namaste!
But for sure, in a post-pandemic world, we can expect more summits and multilateral meetings, both formal and informal, boosting trade, tourism, defence and geopolitical ties.