Only the very naïve or unkind would think that External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s slip of tongue in his opening remarks at the press interaction in Delhi last week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was sitting next to him, was not just that – a slip of tongue. Describing the time-tested and very cordial nature of the relationship, Jaishankar said “India-US,” instead of “India-Russia.”
Lavrov didn’t flinch. A former diplomat with a serious interest in physics, Lavrov has been Russia’s foreign minister since 2004 and understands the pressures that people in high places are often besieged with.
But the incident reminded me of the time when former foreign minister S.M. Krishna inadvertently read the speech of the Portuguese foreign minister at a UN meeting in 2011, because it was placed right on top of the pile of papers on his table.
More seriously, though, Lavrov’s visit has been interesting for a number of reasons, not least because his visit to Pakistan from Delhi has been construed as terrible Russia policy. In an interview with this reporter, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close aide and confidante Vyacheslav Nikonov emphasised that New Delhi need not take the Pakistan trip too seriously, because Pakistan hardly figured on Russia’s foreign policy agenda.
But Nikonov also admitted that Lavrov’s visit was “a signal” to New Delhi about the changing world order. That if Delhi wanted to expand its own repertoire of friendships, notably with the US – which had outright refused to downgrade its own ties with Pakistan – then it could not expect Moscow’s total fidelity in this regard.
That’s why Jaishankar’s slip of tongue is important – it signifies not just the shrunken measure of the India-Russia relationship, it is a tell-tale sign that the “time-tested” relationship is getting misshapen because both sides simply don’t care enough about the sensitivities of the other.