Modi terminates his Weibo diplomacy

Logo of Chinese microblogging website Weibo displayed on a smartphone.

The common perception among Indian analysts, widely articulated in our media, is that the government’s options to ‘hit back’ at China for whatever has happened in eastern Ladakh during the past two months are very limited. The reported erasure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘official page’ on the Chinese social media website Weibo can only reinforce that impression. It simply doesn’t add up. 

If the reports are to be believed, Modi’s official page on Weibo ‘went blank’ on Wednesday with the removal of PM’s photograph and all 115 posts made over the past few years. (Some reports dispute that the actual number is 113 and two posts are still remaining.) 

Why this happened remains incomprehensible — except, perhaps, for the optics it conveys in the domestic perceptions that the government is hanging tough on China. For a start, Modi might not have been a relatively popular figure in China — he only had 2.44 lakhs followers in a population of around 140 crores. But such a following was not insignificant, either, in a country where the there is no dearth of more attractive topics to engage public attention. 

Arguably, therefore, Modi’s effort to communicate with ‘Chinese friends’ through Weibo was not in vain during the period since 2015 when his ‘Weibo diplomacy’ was launched and he wrote his first message, “Hello China! Looking forward to interacting with Chinese friends through Weibo.” 

Communicating directly to the people in an authoritarian state is a rare opportunity. Weibo, which is state-controlled, extended to Modi such a privilege. And Modi, conceivably, was aware that every word he wrote would be carefully read by the movers and shakers in Beijing. 

There is nothing indicating that the Chinese side ever censored his posts. Having lived as a diplomat in the former Soviet Union for many years, I can only conclude that the authorities in Beijing must have been quietly pleased with Modi’s attempt to build bridges of friendship with the Chinese people. 

In diplomacy, the centrality of people-to-people relations in inter-state relations is often understated. Modi is a rare exception. His political persona is virtually nothing without his extraordinary ability to ‘connect’ with people. What a smashing hit his first major foray into international diplomacy was at the Madison Square Garden in the autumn of 2014!  

Without doubt, the event caught then US President Barack Obama’s imagination (although the two statesmen are poles part in their beliefs and politics.) India-US relations, which was listless at that time got a booster dose from Modi’s solo performance in New York. The ties never looked back.  

Modi’s subsequent ‘hug diplomacy’ with President Trump also had an inherent logic insofar as it created a firewall to minimise collateral damage from the latter’s mercurial personality. Modi managed to hold Trump captive to a dissimulated relationship of mutual affection and respect. Trump probably understood the game, but played along. 

It was a delicate trapeze act, and, inevitably, Modi fumbled as time passed by becoming somewhat excessive, as evident from the racuous events Howdy Modi and Namaste Trump. Modi tempted fate. Today, we keep our fingers crossed and hope there won’t be a blowback if Joe Biden wins the November election. 

In comparison, the ‘Weibo diplomacy’ was a safe bet. The best part was that it cost nothing. Even if the bridge lost its sense of direction and was hanging in the air, it still would have served a purpose, as a constant reminder to the Chinese side of Modi’s intentions and commitment to the Sino-Indian relationship. 

Arguably, the Weibo’s administrators would have been put on a spot if Modi had just retained his account vowing not to write any further posts until enduring peace and tranquility reappeared in the rocky mountains and valleys of eastern Ladakh. 

Having said that, what happened yesterday also underscored a maxim that Modi is just about learning — that the role of personalised diplomacy should not be exaggerated. Modi revelled in ‘hug diplomacy’ in its various manifestations and probably had a false notion that India’s foreign policies depended heavily on his personal efforts. The Chinese experience shows that life is real. It is the interests of countries that matter in international politics and any leader who fancies otherwise is bound to meet with disillusionment. 

A famous instance comes to mind — President George W Bush’s famous remark after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the charming Brdo pri Kranju estate in northern Slovenia on June 16, 2001, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy – I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

Bush Jr, was not a gifted speaker, but even by his standards, that remark was a bloomer. His top security aide (and later Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice wrote in her memoirs that Bush’s phrasing had been a serious mistake. As Rice put it gently, ”We were never able to escape the perception that the president had naïvely trusted Putin and then been betrayed.” 

Equally, it is a reasonable estimation today, in retrospect, that the Chinese side too went awfully wrong in believing that Modi was a ‘strong’ leader with whom they could do business and even reach a border settlement to transform the Sino-Indian relationship historically. The Chinese commentaries were noticeably partisan toward Modi in the run up to the 2014 poll when he was storming the citadel in Delhi to capture power. 

Foreign Minister Wang Yi landed in Delhi on June 8, 2014 as the special envoy of President Xi Jinping within days of Modi assuming office as prime minister. While in Delhi, Wang publicly called Modi “an old friend of China” and paid fulsome praise that he would inject a “new vitality into an ancient civilisation”.

Even the Washington-based Diplomat magazine, which is usually hostile toward Beijing, admitted, “Rhetoric aside, the greater significance of Wang’s visit is that it reflects a desire in China to pivot the bilateral relationship with India away from tenuous and unproductive disputes and toward economic cooperation. China, and now India under Modi, see economic complementarities to be exploited for mutual gain.” 

But the magazine was prescient enough to add a cautionary note, albeit in riddles: “Despite rhetoric on both sides favouring closer ties, India and China continue to have their share of problems. While Wang’s trip might by the first official interaction between the Chinese government and the Modi administration, the Chinese foreign ministry did protest Tibetan leader Lobgsang Sangay’s prominent place at Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on May 26.” 

With the benefit of hindsight, if Modi’s China diplomacy is in shambles today, we cannot but factor in the absence of a consensus within our ruling elite over the sort of positive trajectory to the Sino-Indian ties that he would have choreographed in the solitude of his mind as he set out from Gandhinagar to Raisina Hill to assume the levers of power in 2014. 

At what point the Chinese side began sensing this Indian mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma, we may never get to know. But the denouement to the present crisis also depends on our making an intelligent guess.