Modi and Xi

When the Presidents of France and the United States publically displayed their affection for one another in Washington recently, it was a sight to behold.

When Narendra Modi met Xi Jinping in Wuhan there was nothing more than the usual hearty handshakes and a few hesitant hugs.

The success or failure of Summit meetings often hinges on personal rapport. Diplomatic outcomes are judged by whether the interactions were warm or merely cordial.

Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump have plainly developed a visible chemistry. This augers well for the Western world, even though there are sharp differences between Europe and America on a range of issues like Syria, Iran, global trade and climate change.

With body language being the new mantra, speculation is already rife about whether romance will be in the air when the American president meets with Kim Jong-un of North Korea.

Even hard-headed geo-strategic experts are asking—Will the personal 'touch' between the 6.2 foot Trump and the 5.5 foot Kim be able to dissolve decades of hostility and loathing? Will the 72-year-old and the 36-year-old hug each other with enough passion to ward off the Cold War and save the world from nuclear catastrophe?

As far as India and China are concerned, earlier attempts at bonhomie failed to ignite a beautiful friendship. Xi's first visit in 2014 started with great promise—he landed in Modi's home state rather than the national capital, the two leaders strolled along the Sabarmati riverfront and they even sat together on a swing and smiled at each other.

But something happened and the mood turned sour. The three-day visit ended with both sides issuing separate communiques instead of a joint one and, worse, soldiers of both armies facing each other on the Ladakh border.

Two years later, the Chinese leader made another visit, this time to attend the BRICS summit in Goa. The atmosphere was polite and politically correct, nothing more effusive.

Narendra Modi too has made two visits to China, first a three-day visit in 2015 during which his best moments were with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and again in 2017 to attend the Ninth BRICS Summit in Xiamen. In June this year he will be going again to take part in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Qingdao.

The trip to Wuhan for informal talks with President Xi is, therefore, something of an unusual and unscheduled journey into the unknown, coning as it does barely two months before the BRICS summit.

Whether it will provide an opportunity to rekindle the Sabarmati spirit remains to be seen. But even if the two leaders do not swing together in a Wuhan park there should, in theory, be ample scope during the two days to test their personal chemistry.

In practice, however, there is a yawning gap in the current confidence levels of the two men. Xi Jinping is at the height of his powers, having just recently wrested full control over his country and his people by getting himself anointed by the 19th Communist Party of China national congress as President for Life.

In contrast, Narendra Modi is nearing the end of his tenure as Prime Minister of India. That alone alters the equation between the two leaders. They do not command the same status and authority within their own countries. Moreover, Modi is facing an increasing challenge to his leadership on several fronts—economic, social and political. There is no longer any certainty that his party will win the next general elections and he will continue to remain the Prime Minister for another five-year term.

In such circumstances, it was really difficult for him to maintain a posture of supreme self-confidence during the Wuhan talks, especially when he is acutely aware that his host is not only the undisputed President-for-life of the world's second largest economy but also is on the threshold of emerging as one of the great global leaders of the 21st century. 


Vol. 50, No.48, June 3 - 9, 2018