India on Friday nearly got drawn into an international diplomatic wrangle over Russia’s alleged disinformation campaign to influence western elections.
At the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin took turns answering questions from well-known US news anchor Megyn Kelly.
After a detailed answer from Russian President Vladimir Putin where he scorned and made fun of US intelligence claims of interference in US presidential elections, the moderator turned towards the Indian prime minister.
“President Putin said the other day that Russia doesn’t engage in state-sponsored interference in other countries’ elections. Do you believe him?” Kelly asked. The audience at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum tittered and clapped.
After having answered questions about relations with the US, China, Russia and climate change, Modi was likely not expecting to be asked to give his views on this controversial subject.
A clearly amused Putin leaned over to Modi and whispered something in his ear. The interpreters had it as, “You should ask President Obama”. Or did he say the president of Moldova, the only European leader to tow Moscow’s line these days?
Modi demurred from giving a direct answer to Kelly. “You are talking about America, Russia Germany, President Trump, Chancellor Merkel, President Putin. You have been talking of such big people today. You don’t need a lawyer* like me in between yourselves,” he said, laughing.
As Kelly noted that lawyers are certainly not welcome most of the time, Putin made another observation on Modi’s neutral remarks. “It is a very hard to deal with ‘Hindi’. You cannot trick them as their philosophy is long. We are simple people, we say what we think,” he added.
The Indian prime minister was at the plenary session of Russia’s premier international economic conference, along with Austria’s federal chancellor Christian Kern and Moldovan president Igor Dodon.
Modi similarly refrained from criticism when asked about Trump’s move to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement. Just a day earlier before the announcement, Modi had said in Berlin that it would be “morally criminal” to spoil environment for future generations. The moderator asked pointedly, “is that your message towards Trump?”.
“Many people want to make hot news and sensationalise everything,” replied Modi, as he went onto to cite ancient Indian wisdom on the protection of environment.
He claimed that his answer had not changed from what he had said to a similar question in Germany three day ago. “In Germany, (I) mentioned that whether there is Paris accord or no Paris accord, that we must not steal something that rightfully belongs to the next generation”.
When Kelly pressed Modi to take a stronger position by asking him which side he was on, on the US withdrawal from Paris climate change treaty, he refused to take the bait.
“I don’t think that this is a question of talking sides. What I am saying is thinking about another generation. That’s the side I am on,” Modi said.
In his speech, Trump had specifically referred to India and China as the reason for the US’s economic disadvantage from staying within the ambit of the Paris agreement.
“China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants. So we can’t build the plants, but they can, according to this agreement. India will be allowed to double its coal production by 2020. Think of it: India can double their coal production. We’re supposed to get rid of ours. Even Europe is allowed to continue construction of coal plants,” Trump said at the White House Rose garden on Thursday afternoon.
However, Prime Minister Modi did not make any mention of the barbed references made by Trump, and his neutral response was in contrast to that of other world leaders, who have expressed regret at the American move. He is likely to visit Washington later this month for his first meeting with Trump.
Meanwhile, Putin praised India for being one of the “truly sovereign states”. He didn’t elaborate, but asserted that New Delhi had not yielded to attempts to ‘incline’ India’s position on issues that could harm Russian interests.
He added that like India, China was among the handful of nations who valued their independence.
Putin was also asked about the role that China played in Russia-India relations. He referred to the trilateral meetings between himself, Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping, and the BRICS summit as a positive development.
“It took us 40 years with China to negotiate the frontier issue. But thanks to the warm atmosphere on bilateral matters, we have been able to reach understanding… We made concession, China made concession…” he said.
Modi also referred to India’s border dispute with China, but put it in a positive context. “In the last 40 years, there has been a border dispute between India and China but not even a single bullet has been fired,” he asserted, adding that India and China were now closely and inextricably linked on the economic front.
Modi noted that India’s relations with China should not be viewed through a third-country perspective.
To a question on free trade and China’s silk road initiative, he digressed by talking about terrorism, since Putin’s previous answer had been on the same subject.
He complained that the world was only paying “lip service” to the need to approve an international convention on terrorism. Earlier, he added that the world woke up to the threat of international terrorism only after 9/11, while India had been fighting the threat for decades.
Modi did not take Pakistan’s name, but he was clearly referring to the South Asian country when he said that terrorists were being clearly supplied by external agencies with weapons, money and communication facilities.
*Note: The only available video recordings of the Kelly interview provides live English translation over what Modi and Putin said.