Putin votes for Modi. Can he help Modi win?

(Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi react while walking near the Constantine Palace, St. Petersburg, June 2017.)

The Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree in Moscow on April 12 conferring on Prime Minister Narendra Modi Russia’s highest state award, the Order of St Andrew the Apostle the First-Called. This is the highest and oldest state order of Russia, first established in 1698. It was abolished under the Soviet Union but re-established in 1998. 

Modi is the first leader from the democratic world to receive the Order of St Andrew the Apostle the First-Called. For the beleaguered Indian Prime Minister fighting an existential battle for political survival in the ongoing general election, this is like manna from the heaven boosting a sagging image in the public perceptions of a lacklustre government that couldn’t get its act together in the economy or good governance. 

The Russian announcement said that Modi was decorated “for exceptional services in promoting special & privileged strategic partnership between Russia and India and friendly relations between the Russian and Indian peoples.” 

Modi in turn has effusively expressed his gratitude to Putin: “Honoured to receive this prestigious award. I thank President Putin and the people of Russia. Foundations of India-Russia friendship are deep and the future of our partnership is bright. Extensive cooperation between our nations has led to extraordinary outcomes for our citizens.”

“President Putin remains a source of great strength for the India-Russia friendship. Under his visionary leadership, bilateral and multilateral cooperation between our nations has scaled new heights.” 

No doubt, this is a well-earned prize for Modi. It is well-known that Modi has boosted India’s defence ties with Russia and taken them to dizzying heights. He went out on a limb risking American wrath to conclude a $6 billion deal for the purchase of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia. He agreed to an innovative payment mechanism at the governmental level that bypasses American dollar for such transactions with Russia. 

Looking back, Modi’s informal meeting with Putin in Sochi in May 2018 was a turning point. A matrix developed after the free-wheeling talks in Sochi, which catapulted Russian-Indian relations to a new high. The Americans threatened to impose sanctions on India’s S-400 missile deal. But Modi was unmoved. In fact, other similar decisions in the field of military-technical cooperation followed in the downstream worth billions of dollars.  

(Modi-Putin “informal” meeting in Sochi, May, 2018) 

These multi-billion dollar arms deals have virtually cemented Russia’s position as India’s number one arms vendor for the medium and long term. The S-400 system, in particular, “locks in” the Indian armed forces for decades to come. 

Arms deals are highly lucrative and the Russian companies make a fortune out of doing business with Delhi through direct secret negotiations with the government, dispensing with open tenders. The political leadership takes the key decisions in such arms deals. Now, the Russian arms industry is a big source of income for that country’s economy and Putin feels greatly obliged to Modi. 

Putin has a habit of lavishing favours on foreign statesmen who have served Russia’s interests. He once handed over a plush job with fantastic perks to the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder upon his retirement from public life for having been instrumental while in office to push through the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which will help consolidate Russia’s pre-eminent role in Europe’s — especially Germany’s — energy market. The Wall Street Journal described Schroeder as Putin’s most important oligarch. But Schroeder was defiant. “This is about my life, and I decide,” he snapped back. Modi will also take a similar attitude.

But Putin’s diplomatic moves are also carefully timed. Therefore, the  stunning part here is that he decided to underscore Russia’s admiration (and his own obligation) for Modi just as the crucial general election got under way in our country. 

Putin cannot be unfamiliar with the functioning of democracies and why a fair and free election is the life force of a democracy. Suffice to say, the political symbolism of his intervention in the Indian election cannot be lost on him. Putin enjoys immunity from India’s election code, or else, the Election Commission might have chastised him for daring such an irresponsible act of interference in the ongoing poll. 

No doubt, for large sections of the Indian public, it becomes a matter of regret that Russia is interfering in an Indian election. Putin has departed from a great Russian tradition of staying above India’s electoral politics and dealing with the established governments in Delhi — be it under Indira Gandhi or Morarji Desai, Rajiv Gandhi or AB Vajpayee. Simply put, Putin could have announced his decision either before the India’s general election commenced on April 11, or deferred it until May 19 when it concludes. Why April 12, such immaculate timing? The optics are appalling — incredibly crude — from the diplomatic angle.   

This also raises troubling questions. How can Putin be so sure that India’s electronic voting machines will come out with the desired results on May 23? What a frightening scenario! Putin is a highly trained intelligence officer by profession and such strange behaviour to barge into India’s domestic politics bang in the middle of a general election is extraordinary at a juncture when Russian “meddling” in elections abroad is still a raging controversy. 

Indeed, no one is talking here about “Russia collusion”. There isn’t going to be any Robert Mueller inquiry, either, to fathom why Putin is investing political capital so heavily on Modi. Nonetheless, given the secretive nature of the Russian political system, eyebrows are bound to be raised within India, — and more so, abroad.