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Modi flies into niggling air pockets

- Meeting with Putin missed, many meanings read by others

New Delhi, July 15: Serial scheduling glitches and suggestions of diplomatic coolness have hit Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first transatlantic visit.

Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin had to postpone their first meeting last evening at Brazil’s Fortaleza on the margins of the BRICS summit because of a programming overlap. But some in Moscow and New Delhi are also trying to read diplomatic tea leaves.

The meeting with Putin was scheduled a day after Modi landed in Berlin on his way to Brazil, for a prescheduled dinner with Angela Merkel that had to be aborted because the German chancellor chose a date with the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro. Her country won the cup.

Modi’s attempted meet with Merkel, after he had written to Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of his intent to make Tokyo his first overseas visit, has triggered concerns among the Japanese.

Many South American diplomats are wondering whether Modi’s unusual decision to travel 27,000km between India and their continent for just one visit, to Brazil, is indicative of a depleted interest in the region — a perception Indian officials and former diplomats reject.

“These things happen,” said a retired Indian diplomat who has served in the foreign office’s protocol division. “But rarely do you see four of what appear to be potential goof-ups on one trip.”

Modi was supposed to hold back-to-back meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin last evening. But after the meeting with Xi, which stretched for 80 minutes instead of the scheduled 40 minutes, Modi was left waiting for Putin.

The Russian President was still flying the 1,600km distance from Brasilia, where his meeting with his Brazilian counterpart Dilma Rousseff extended two hours beyond what was scheduled.

By the time Putin landed in Fortaleza, it was time for a scheduled meeting between the Russian President and Xi, sandwiching out his meeting with Modi.

Putin met South African President Jacob Zuma, as Russian and Indian officials hastily tried to reschedule a meeting between their leaders for this evening. It is usual for meetings between leaders to stretch beyond their scheduled time and officials usually plan for delays.

The schedules of Modi and Putin didn’t allow enough of buffer time to accommodate a rescheduled meeting the same day.

Sections in India’s foreign policy establishment are wondering whether the avoidable delay in Putin’s landing in Fortaleza — where he knew the Indian Prime Minister was waiting for him — represents a signal from Moscow that New Delhi needs to decipher.

Others are calling this section paranoid, but accept that the schedule for the Putin-Modi meeting could have been managed better, not just by Russia, but by a little foresight from India, too. “A little flexibility in scheduling on July 14, that’s all that was needed,” one official said.

In Berlin, Modi and the Indian team were greeted by images of Merkel cheering her team at Rio’s Maracana stadium. Germany had proposed a dinner meeting between Merkel and Modi on the night of July 13 in Berlin.

But Germany had already reached the Round of 16 at the World Cup in Brazil. India, some officials contend, should have foreseen the possibility of Germany reaching the final on July 13.

“To think that the German Chancellor would skip a World Cup final in which her country is playing, for any visiting leader, is not smart,” another official said. “In the process, you’ve possibly unsettled another ally in Japan.”

Modi, who was to visit Japan at the start of this month, postponed the trip citing the budget session of Parliament. But in a letter to Abe, he assured the Japanese Prime Minister that Tokyo would stay his first bilateral “overseas” destination.

Several South American diplomats indicated that Modi’s decision to skip other bilateral visits on his trip to their continent had also left them puzzled, and just a little concerned.

Because of the long travel time and distance involved, Indian Prime Ministers and other senior leaders rarely travel to South America. When they do, they almost always visit at least two nations to maximise opportunities to build ties with the continent.

Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh, when he first travelled to Brazil in September 2006, also visited Cuba. In 2012, Singh visited both Brazil and Mexico.

Putin visited Argentina — where he signed a nuclear deal with the uranium-rich nation — and Cuba before arriving in Brazil. Xi will visit Venezuela, Cuba and Argentina.

But former Indian ambassador to Brazil Amitava Tripathi said Modi had done the best he could by squeezing out a trip to South America in the middle of a Parliament session.

“Look at the state of the economy, the domestic challenges he is facing, and then see that he has taken time out to make this trip,” Tripathi said. “I understand the concerns among my Latin American friends, but it would be absolutely wrong to conclude that he is neglecting the region.”