Autocratic Embrace

Narendra Modi’s an autocrat. He’s also an ethnonationalist whose religious fervor at times strays perilously close to psychopathy.

That’s really (really) inconvenient, which is why you don’t hear Western politicians say it very often. Not even when they’re accusing the Indian government of assassinating dissidents on foreign soil.

India’s still a democracy, and Modi was humbled at the polls this year, but make no mistake: If it were up to him, the country would operate under one-party rule and he’d preside as a Hindu nationalist strongman with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh acting as a kind of Praetorian Guard.

I often distinguish between, on one hand, the Vladimir Putins, Alexander Lukashenkos, Xi Jinpings and Kim Jong-Uns of the world and, on the other, the Viktor Orbáns, the Recep Tayyip Erdogans and the Benjamin Netanyahus. Autocrats, all. But the likes of Orbán, Erdogan and Netanyahu aren’t quite dictators. For now, Modi’s not a dictator. The best analogue for Modi’s probably Netanyahu. But Modi has a dark streak. He’d kill a man, personally, over a religio-political dispute. It’s the “personally” part that’s concerning.

Modi was in Moscow this week to hang out with Putin. The two men are — friends? I doubt that’s the right word. Putin doesn’t have “friends,” really. But he has something that vaguely resembles respect for Modi, and Modi’s gone out of his way to avoid alienating Moscow over the course of the war.

Russia and India are, of course, two of the acronym letters in “BRICS,” and Putin greatly appreciates that Modi hasn’t succumbed to Washington’s pressure campaign as it relates to economic and financial transactions with wartime Russia. Modi maintains a fiercely independent foreign policy, and his trip to Moscow was a propaganda coup. The Kremlin capitalized with a collage of agitprop, including a 15-photo digital scrapbook.

You’ve all seen Western leaders do their best to feign intrepidity when staring into the dark abyss behind Putin’s retina. George W. Bush famously saw — or thought he saw — Putin’s “soul.” (Years later, while visiting the Kremlin as vice president, Joe Biden joked, “I’m looking into your eyes and I don’t think you have a soul.” Putin laughed. “I think we understand each other,” he allegedly told Biden, through an interpreter.) With that in mind, here’s the visage that stared back at Putin during informal talks outside of Moscow this week:

Kremlin handout

I don’t know what that is, but I know what it categorically isn’t: It isn’t diffidence.

Note that the Kremlin benefits from portraying Modi as a strongman. This was a meeting of iron-willed, like-minded leaders with mutual interests, Russia wants the world to know.

Still, you can’t stage Modi’s stare. You can’t teach it either. You’re either confident and comfortable around a man like Putin or you aren’t. The vast, vast majority of humanity isn’t. Modi is. And that should tell you a lot. None of it good.

On the other side of Modi’s rather unnerving gaze was an unblinking Putin, his head on an unnatural sideways tilt, his mien sardonic.

The rest of the pictures from the presidential residence in Novo-Ogaryovo were predictably (stereotypically) Russian. Putin grins, strides, drives golf carts, eats grapes and feeds horses. The only thing missing was tiger-riding.

But the visual that really struck a nerve in the West, and more so in Kyiv, was this one:


That’s a hug. A contrived hug, but a hug all the same. An autocrat-to-autocrat embrace. Modi posted it on “X.”

“Gratitude to President Putin for hosting me,” he said, describing his visit to Moscow as an opportunity for India to “cement the bonds of friendship” with Russia.

Volodymyr Zelensky nearly lost his mind. “This is a huge disappointment and a devastating blow to peace efforts,” he seethed. “To see the leader of the world’s largest democracy hug the world’s most bloody criminal in Moscow on such a day.”

“Such a day” was a reference to a highly unfortunate incident at the Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital in Kyiv, which was partially destroyed during a Russian missile attack on Monday. Across the country, dozens were killed in a barrage that also targeted Dnipro and several other cities. The Kremlin said the damage to the pediatric hospital, Ukraine’s largest, was accidental and might’ve been attributable to falling debris from Ukraine’s aerial defense systems.

Whatever he says in public, Zelensky surely knows he can’t count on Modi to bring Russia around. If the choice is between Moscow and Kyiv, Modi’s going to choose Moscow every, single time.

India still buys lots of Russian oil and weapons, and to be as blunt as absolutely possible, Modi doesn’t care how many Ukrainian civilians die in that war. Certainly not in the context of his rapport with Putin. There’s not some threshold beyond which Modi’s going to tell Putin “That’s too many dead Ukrainians” or “Those Ukrainians” — sick children, in this case — “are off limits.”

Of course, the US could always threaten Modi with divestitures and export restrictions, but Washington isn’t going to do that. There’s a very real sense in which the US actually likes the idea of a strongman at the helm in India to the extent Modi serves as a kind of check on Xi’s regional ambitions.

“Dear friend, good afternoon. I am delighted to see you,” Putin told Modi, welcoming him to the presidential compound. “I would like to congratulate you on being re-elected. You are a very energetic person and you know how to get results.”

“Visiting a friend in his home is a delight,” Modi replied. “You are right that this year’s elections were very important. My only goal is to serve my country and my people.”


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