First, it was with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Now, it is with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held ‘informal, no agenda talks’ that were reportedly substantive in content. The big question is what is expected to be achieved through these purportedly informal sessions with Xi Jinping in Wuhan and President Putin at Sochi. No agreements were to be inked or a joint communiqué issued. Press briefings were out of the question. These meetings were mostly ‘one on one’ with none bearing testimony to what transpired between the leaders.
The meetings were held in the usual manner of Prime Minister Modi. No aides were present at the long ‘personalised’ meetings he held with Xi and Putin on a river cruise, yacht and leisurely garden strolls. There is no harm in having such deliberations that are ‘completely off the record’ and ‘undocumented’. Modi’s meetings with the Chinese and Russian leaders were a lot about gifts, and huge on hugs. Formal summit level talks are often caught in a straitjacket. In that sense, informal meetings throw in a bit of old world personal warmth to improve relations.
The stand-off at Doklam between Indian and Chinese troops in 2017 provided the backdrop to the Modi-Xi meetings. Now, the US pullout from the nuclear deal with Iran and developments in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region have provided the occasion to exchange ideas at a close and personal level. In any case, there are several bilateral issues that need resolution or sinking of differences. For quite sometime now, India and Russia have been contemplating rupee–rouble trade outside the US dollar eco-system. Like the arrangement that India has with Iran, Russia with China, pushing for investment and trade relations outside US green back is not a bad idea. Private investments from either side have been in billions of dollars giving both sides enough scope for exploiting domestic resources.
From the point of view of strategic ties, reviving the old camaraderie and instilling confidence in defence ties is evidently a priority area for all concerned. Though Russia continues to be the largest military-ware supplier, India’s diversification of its defence basket should serve as the prism for reviewing this engagement. This is perhaps the perfect juncture to push for ‘Make in India’. The civil nuclear deal expansion beyond the Kudankulam project and jointly pursuing such pacts elsewhere have a big potential. China and its ally, Pakistan, may not particularly be very comfortable in Russia and India cozying on the energy front.
In what transpired with Xi and Putin is anything to go by, Prime Minister Modi may round off his first five years in office by holding more such ‘no-agenda’ meetings that would be useful for India. It is possible that Modi will have President Donald Trump, Shinzo Abe, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May on his list of world leaders for one to one informal interactions before the BJP leadership decides to go into election mode for a second straight term at the Centre.