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River ride in Paris, low tide in Berlin

Modi's Germany plan reflects irritants that have crept into bilateral relations

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 9.04.15
Angela Merkel, Narendra Modi and Francois Hollande

New Delhi, April 8: India is unwilling to christen Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Germany trip this weekend a full-fledged bilateral visit, instead suggesting it is focused on the Hanover trade fair, underscoring a coldness that has quietly crept into one of New Delhi's traditionally key relationships.

The decision to give the trip a workmanlike status differs sharply from the image New Delhi is trying to portray of the Prime Minister's visit to France, also this week, where Modi will take a boat ride on the Seine with President Francois Hollande.

After the boat ride, which foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar today called " naav pe charcha (dialogue on a boat)" in a reference to Modi's pre-election chai pe charcha chats, Modi will also spend three days travelling in Canada with the country's Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Germany has consistently ranked among India's top 10 trading partners, is an ally in their joint demand for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, and the two nations share perspectives on global challenges far more than they often publicly admit.

But serial diplomatic missteps - each minor by itself - have over the past two years accumulated into a bucket list of wounds on both sides that have eaten away at some of the warmth that marked the relationship just a few years ago.

When Modi lands in Berlin and Hanover after visiting France - his first destination on a nine-day trip starting Thursday - it will be largely about cold business, three senior officials familiar with the preparations for the visit have told The Telegraph.

"This is principally a business-oriented trip, not really a bilateral visit in the trust sense," one of these officials said. "Though of course, the Prime Minister will take every opportunity to also discuss bilateral issues."

Different tags assigned to foreign trips don't reflect just semantic nitpicking. They are meant to capture the extent of expectations from the bilateral component of different visits. In this case, Modi's visit comes at a time the two nations are trying to overcome a series of stumbles in their relationship.

As the driver of the European Union (EU), Germany could have done more than it has to isolate differences between New Delhi and the bloc over the arrest of two Italian marines for murder, from their overall relationship, many in India's diplomatic establishment argue.

Instead, the otherwise popular German ambassador to India, Michael Steiner, in February 2014 suggested that delays in the court case against the marines could impact India-EU relations. That comment from Steiner earned him several enemies in the Indian ministry of external affairs.

In June 2014, the foreign office had proposed that Modi, on his way to Fortaleza for the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (Brics) summit, could meet German chancellor Angela Merkel for a lunch in Frankfurt.

But days before Modi's visit, Germany pulled out of that meeting as Merkel instead flew to Rio de Janeiro to watch her country's football team lift the World Cup.

Officially, the foreign office suggested the lunch was never confirmed in the first place, but Merkel's snub left a scar, officials later acknowledged. Germany, too, has grievances. Several joint projects it has proposed - and that India has accepted in principle - are still to get off the block because of New Delhi's bureaucracy.

A pact India and Germany signed to exempt Indian nationals working in that country on short-term contracts from social security payments is yet to be ratified by the ministry of overseas Indian affairs.

Officially, the only reason for not calling Modi's visit a full-fledged bilateral trip is reciprocity.

Chancellor Merkel has not made a visit to India since then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's bilateral trip to Berlin in 2013.

Merkel is expected to visit India later this year, for an inter-governmental commission mechanism first started in 2011 when she had last travelled to New Delhi, officials said.

But the Hannover Messe - the world's largest trade fair - opens on April 13 with India as its showcased partner country, and Merkel has personally invited Modi to inaugurate the fair with her.

Banners and hoardings of Modi's flagship "Make in India" programme already mark Hanover - and the fair represents an opportunity to market his vision that Modi could not miss.

So a trip focused on business, with Hanover as its centrepiece, was conceived, with the bilateral component of the visit secondary.

But even for a highly protocol-conscious foreign office like India's, reciprocity is a rule frequently bent when it suits New Delhi.

Often, to avoid repeat visits, the government divides a foreign trip into two parts - a multilateral component, if the Prime Minister is attending a multi-nation summit, and a strictly bilateral element.

Former Prime Minister Singh made five full-fledged bilateral visits to Washington during his 10 years in office while US Presidents visited India only twice in that time: George W. Bush in 2006 and Barack Obama in 2010.

Nor has Modi strictly followed this rule.

Modi visited the White House for what was dubbed a full-fledged bilateral visit last September, separate from his trip to New York for the UN General Assembly. But Obama had not visited India between Singh's last bilateral trip to Washington in September 2013 and Modi's 2014 visit.

India has also happily flouted the reciprocity principle as a host, most notoriously with Bhutan's leaders, but also with British Prime Minister David Cameron who has travelled to New Delhi thrice in his five-year term - without a single visit by an Indian Premier to the UK in this period.