Russian President Vladimir Putin with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting in New Delhi on October 5, 2018. Photo: AFP / Maksim Blinov / Sputnik

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree in Moscow last Friday conferring on Indian 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 heaven, boosting a sagging image in the public perception of a lackluster government that could not get its act together in the economy or good governance.

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

Close ties

Modi, in turn, has effusively expressed his gratitude to Putin. He wrote on Twitter: “Honored 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 defense ties with Russia and taken them to dizzying heights. He went out on a limb risking American wrath to conclude a US$6 billion deal for the purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia.

He also agreed to an innovative payment mechanism at the governmental level that bypasses US dollars for such transactions with Russia.

No Indian PM has ever defied the US so brazenly. The Americans threatened to impose sanctions on India. But Modi was unmoved. In fact, other similar decisions in the field of military-technical cooperation followed in the downstream worth billions of dollars.

These multibillion-dollar arms deals have virtually cemented Russia’s stature as India’s No 1 arms vendor for the medium and long terms. 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 New Delhi through direct secret negotiations with the government, dispensing with open tenders. The political leadership makes 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.

Favors for friends

Putin has a habit of lavishing favors on foreign statesmen who have served Russia’s interests. He once handed over a plush job with fantastic perks to 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. The stunning part here is that he decided to underscore Russia’s admiration – and his own obligation – for Modi just as the crucial Indian general election started.

Although Putin is not a great democrat, he 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, being an intelligent man, the political symbolism of his action cannot be lost on him.

Putin doesn’t come within the ambit of India’s election code or else the Election Commission of India might have chastised him for 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 New Delhi – be it under Indira Gandhi or Morarji Desai, Rajiv Gandhi or A B Vajpayee.

Simply put, Putin should have announced his decision before India’s general election started on April 11, or deferred it until May 19 when it finishes. Why such immaculate timing? Make no mistake that the optics are appalling and incredibly crude.

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? Putin is a highly trained intelligence officer by profession and such strange behavior 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 in India about “Russia collusion.” There isn’t going to be any Robert Mueller-type 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.

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