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Anyone know what Modi and Xi discussed?

By T P Sreenivasan
Last updated on: August 01, 2018 16:01 IST
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'Till today, we don't know what PM Modi discussed with Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, but we have been told that the relations have been reset.'
'We have no evidence from China to show that anything has changed, even though India had made several gestures in preparation for Wuhan,' says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi with China's Supreme Leader Xi Jinping in Wuhan, April 28, 2018.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi with China's Supreme Leader Xi Jinping in Wuhan, April 28, 2018.

When Edmund Hillary became the first human to step on the summit of Mount Everest, sharing the glory with him was his sherpa, Tenzing Norgay.

The message was that Hillary could not have accomplished his feat without the support of the sherpa, who knew the route to the top and its hidden dangers by instinct, if not by experience.

The political summits too have been acknowledging the role of the sherpas in preparing the ground and clearing the path for the principals to negotiate war and peace. But the current world disorder seems to have invented summits without sherpas, or at least without them being visible.

Gone are the days when ambassadors were plenipotentiaries, the lords of all they surveyed abroad and were empowered to negotiate war and peace with foreign lands.

Even matrimonial alliances were not uncommon to seal the bonds of friendship. They merely had to keep their governments informed through despatches by diplomatic bags.

Instructions came too late or did not come at all since the deeds were done.

Rewards and punishments too arrived by snail mail many months after the relationship had either improved or the ambassador was declared persona non grata and shipped out.

Then came the period after the advent of the communications revolution when the ambassadors and their minders came to have the same sources of information and the former became dispensable.

But even in that age, the diplomatic machinery worked on briefs, draft speeches and talking points printed on attractive folders for the principals to use.

Many of them went by the briefing book and read out even the mistakes in them, giving rise to embarrassment to the readers and merriment to the listeners.


One such occasion (perhaps apocryphal) was when Leonid Brezhnev kept addressing Mrs Gandhi as Mrs Thatcher at a bilateral meeting.

Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin pointed out to him gently that it was Mrs Gandhi who was sitting across the table, but Brezhnev told off Kosygin by saying, 'I know it is Mrs Gandhi, but it is written here Mrs Thatcher.'

Senior diplomats and other officials who did all the work for their principals, but did not take the credit came to be known as sherpas, to distinguish them from the summiteers who took the credit.

Sherpas could be of any designation and any rank and it was not derogatory to be called so.

The sherpas too had their anonymous underlings, who toiled day and night to prepare the best documents.

The briefs were written and rewritten at different levels and finally produced in the right font on the right paper of the size prescribed by the leaders.

Rajiv Gandhi, it was rumoured, wanted all the briefs written on one page since, as a trained pilot, he was not accustomed to turning the pages.

Fast forward, we have reached the new paperless, and even briefless world.

Sherpas seem to have become an extinct species, as the summiteers have begun to take the bull by the horns and handle diplomatic situations by themselves.

<>One of the earliest among the new genre of ministers was Jaswant Singh, who insisted on proper briefs, but left them behind when he walked into the conference room empty-handed even when delicate negotiations were involved.

Having been accustomed to bosses who could not operate without briefs, diplomats were quite nervous, when the minister did not carry any papers.

But judging from the results, he performed well, liberated as he was from the stereotyped views in the files.

Tete-a-tetes between leaders were more for small talk in the early days, but these have become the order of the day of late. These have proliferated in recent years, giving the leaders a chance to understand each other.

In certain cases, the tete-a-tete got extended so long that the accompanying delegations were not invited to join the leaders at all.

History will have many gaps if this trend continues as the principals may not recall the details of the conversations or they may embellish the conversations in their own favour.

I remember how the then minister of external affairs, Shyam Nandan Misra, had a one-to-one meeting with Fidel Castro in 1979 in Havana, but could not remember a word of what Castro told him.

This was at a non-sligned summit which took important decisions in which India was playing a role. India's inputs on these matters at the highest level were erased forever.

More recently, with the advent of agenda-less summits, tête-à-têtes have replaced the delegation meetings to a large extent, particularly at the head of State and head of government levels.

Till today, we do not know what PM Modi discussed with Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, but we have been told that the relations have been reset.

We have no evidence from China to show that anything has changed, even though India had made several gestures in preparation for Wuhan.

Soon after Wuhan, in an unfriendly step, China set up an alternative to SAARC, by creating the China South Asia Cooperation Forum with itself in it and India quietly participated in the initial meeting.

No news came also about any new understanding on the contentious issue of violation of Indian integrity by the China Pakistan Economic Corridor as part of the Bridge and Road Initiative of China. Prime Minister Modi, on the other hand, was excessively cautious about China in his address in the Shangri-La Dialogue.

In the case of Russia, there have been reports of progress on certain nuclear matters and arms deals.

The one case which became a publicity disaster for President Donald J Trump was his meeting without sherpas for more than two hours in Helsinki with President Vladimir Putin of Russia at a particularly delicate moment in US-Russia relations.

Trump's obsequious behaviour with Putin at a press conference soon after the summit brought him to the brink of impeachment.

Trump said that they talked only about sweet nothings like lovers would do, but Putin listed several issues on which he secured approval for the status quo in his favour.

There were no record takers or recordings and the only people present other than the principals were the interpreters. Since interpreters are sworn to secrecy and will not share their notes with anyone, there is talk of subpoenaing them to get to the truth.

The solution being suggested is to invite Putin to the White House, which is properly wired, to make him speak on record.

If only Trump and Putin had their aides with them, Trump would not have been accused of becoming Putin's lapdog or worse.

But then summits without sherpas have become not only fashionable, but also indispensable to resolve intractable issues.

T P Sreenivasan, (IFS 1967), former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA is the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services, Director General, Kerala International Centre.

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