Modi's Russia visit to meet Putin shows how India has redefined its foreign policy with 'informal' meets

A leader travelling a long distance, moving out of his/her own comfort zone, to informally meet global leaders has enough substance in it for forging trust.

 |  5-minute read |   22-05-2018
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With back-to-back "informal meetings" at world stage, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has definitely charted a "new formal" style of conducting India’s foreign policy. After Jawaharlal Nehru, Modi is the only premier in India who has already left his signature imprint in India’s foreign policy.

While critics would rather campaign against Modi’s high-profile shuttling around the world, the short and long-term dividends can’t be rejected outrightly, especially during a complex and unpredictable time of global disorder. The outcome of foreign policy decisions takes time, unlike "takeaways" from supermarket.

The way Russian President Vladimir Putin wlecomed PM Modi at Bocharev Creek in Sochi has put the dribble of doubt at rest. The friendly warmth of the receiving handshake was met with an equally warm signature hug from the Indian PM. 

A common thread is emerging with leaders of important countries continuing in their respective offices by re-election — don’t waste time following formal process of meetings at summit level or just token congratulations on Twitter or phone call. Reach out to them as Modi did in Wuhan in April for Xi Jinping and now in Sochi.


A leader travelling a long distance, moving out of his/her own comfort zone, to informally meet global leaders has enough substance in it for forging trust. The only point of discomfort is who will foot the bill of such expensive extra mile fuel costs including other paraphernalia. In fact, the cost of a day-long visit or two-day visit are much less than prolonged Track-II diplomacy or formal official processing of such summit meetings. It is another matter that no one has ever asked to compare such events or evaluate the economics as well as institutional costs of such strategies.

"Informal" to "no-agenda", the Indian foreign policy has at best come out of the jinx. First, it was Wuhan where an informal meeting with the Chinese President resulted in a series of positives for India. Now, an "agenda-less" talks with Putin in Sochi through a yatch ride in the warm water of Black Sea, a visit to Sirius, an incubator for gifted children, has poised to accelerate bilateral relation between Russia and India — a tried-and-trusted friendship, into a new height, from "strategic partnership" to a "special privileged strategic partnership".

While on the yatch, Modi could have congratulated Putin for the inauguration of 19km bridge linking Russia’s Taman Peninsula with Crimea, which Putin himself inaugurated by driving a truck over the bridge last week, as Indian PM vouch for such large development projects. 

Before joining Davos early this year, Modi mentioned in one of the interviews that he was unaware of etiquettes or protocols of foreign affairs while meeting heads of government or visiting countries as he came from a humble background. So, he has been trying to infuse what he is best at: informality through friendly gestures, one of which has been staunchly criticised as "hug diplomacy".

The PM strongly believes that informal talks are very useful for direct conversation than the formalities of a structured summit. One can argue that PM has already passed through the world’s most protocol driven meeting with Queen of United Kingdom with élan. Individual can be instrumental in directing the generational aspiration of a country by injecting personal elements in conduct of foreign policy.

In this context, the four years of Modi doctrine can be categorised in three phases. First phase has seen the out-of-box thinking in reaching out to all — friends and foes in world politics to familiarise with their intentions. When Modi sworn in as Indian prime minster, he invited all leaders of SAARC countries, not as old buddies, but to usher in a pragmatic foreign policy, especially in the neighbourhood. Similarly, a brief stopover in Lahore for a tea with Pakistan premier was in the same style. The second phase is deliberate disruption of status quo in the realm of conservative foreign affairs establishment. Although, the shuttle diplomacy to mark Modi’s imprint in post-Nehruvian foreign policy could not take off properly, it was much anticipated as well as appreciated from an Indian perspective of "humble foreign policy" to "assertive foreign policy". However, all ad-hoc experimentalism either have backfired or have not yielded results as expected.

The third phase is step back and rectify the ill-effects of disruption with personal touch and informality. The Wuhan, Janakpur and Sochi are distinct examples as of now. Much more would be awaiting before and after 2019 general election too.   

What is generally missing in this personal attribution is the lack of knowledge as what transpired even when these meetings are concluded. As we know from history, under democratic ethos only "open negotiations arrived at openly" are viable to protect national interests.

But, whether we like it or not, "informality" is now the "new formal" in Indian foreign policy.

Also read: 'Pakistan felt, let Modi destroy India's image – Vajpayee's approach was right'


Avilash Roul Avilash Roul

The writer works with IIT Madras as senior scientist.

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