Will PM Modi hug Prez Xi in Wuhan to rekindle Sabarmati bromance?

It remains to be seen if Modi and Xi can reignite what started out to be an interesting friendship when Xi visited India in 2014. But, then the mood turned sour. In 2016, they were simply cordial

Photo by Du Yang/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images
Photo by Du Yang/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

Mala Jay

When the Presidents of France and the United States publicly displayed their affection for one another in Washington on Tuesday, April 24, it was a sight to behold. Frequently hugging each other, they indulged in a bout of hand-holding, cheek kissing, back-slapping and even a helpful dandruff dust-off, as foreign correspondents and the global TV audience watched in astonishment.

When Narendra Modi meets Xi Jinping in Wuhan on April 27-28 for an ‘informal summit’, the world will be watching to see if there is anything more than the usual hearty handshakes and a few hesitant hugs. Nobody is expecting the Macron-Trump kind of touchy-feely body language. But some sign of a budding bromance between the leaders of the Asian giants could be essential for the informal talks to be seen as fruitful.

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 bromance will be in the air when the American President meets Kim Jong-un of North Korea.

Even hard-headed geo-strategic experts are asking—Will the personal ‘touch’ between the 6.2 feet Trump and the 5.5 feet 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?

Narendra Modi’s trip to Wuhan for informal talks with President Xi comes when there is a yawning gap in the current confidence levels of the two men. Xi Jinping is at the height of his powers and Modi is nearing the end of his tenure as Prime Minister of India

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 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat 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 communiqués 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, coming 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’s 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 elections and he will continue to remain the Prime Minister for another five-year term.

In such circumstances, it will be 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.

In the unlikely event of the Wuhan summit turning out to be an Asian bromance with Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi holding hands in front of the cameras and clinging to each other like long-lost brothers, one thing is for sure—the initiative would have come from the Chinese President for reason of his own and the choreography would have
distinct Chinese characteristics.

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