German Chancellor Angela Merkel is well-advised to show understanding for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He may not be a democratic role model, but he shares many Western values, says DW's Michaela Küfner.
Riders in ceremonial military uniforms accompanied Angela Merkel's limousine as she approached her destination — it's not a treatment the German chancellor gets every day. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chancellor Angela Merkel value one another, and although there were subtle criticisms, economic cooperation was at the core of Merkel's message during the fifth German-Indian bilateral talks, which took place in New Delhi.
Kashmir here, internment camps for forcibly expatriated citizens there: Germany wants nothing more than to be a close partner to Modi as he builds his "new India." The problem is, there are a number of grave human rights abuses and democratic deficiencies in the self-named "largest democracy on earth."
Yet, Merkel only addressed such issues publicly when directly confronted by German journalists. Commenting on the situation in Kashmir, where residents were subjected to curfews overnight, the chancellor said the status quo was "not sustainable and not good," adding that it "certainly has to be improved." Even that cautious statement was enough to set off a firestorm on social media across the country.
A struggle of systems
Merkel also broached the subject of Kashmir behind the scenes, living up to her reputation as the "leader of the free world." But during her meetings with Prime Minister Modi, Merkel was above all concerned with paving the way for a possible free trade agreement between India and the EU. Talks on the subject were well advanced at an earlier date, and there is great hope that Modi will take another run at the agreement now that he's in his second term in office.
At home in Germany, wrangling by the political parties over the current national government has distracted people's attention from the fact that Germany is not only in the midst of a fight for global economic dominance, but rather increasingly in a struggle of systems.
Fears of being crushed in the trade war between the US and China have taken hold across Europe. That is something that needs no explanation in Asia. The Indians recognize the situation and look self-assuredly into the future, knowing that a strengthened India is becoming an increasingly attractive partner for Western democracies.
A lightweight partner?
Despite India’s booming potential, it is, nevertheless, a lightweight compared to China. Although both countries were on economic par with one another in the 1980s, China's annual GDP is now five times that of India's, even though the countries also have roughly the same size population. Whereas Modi is busy trying to make sure that every family in India has its own toilet, China is busily crafting its geopolitical dreams for the future.
Modi, too, dreams of a new global role for India. Unfortunately, his country simply doesn't have the economic heft to play with the big boys, despite the fact that India is a nuclear power. Thus, people here listen keenly when Merkel voices hope for a "win-win situation." That situation could come to fruition if the 22 bilateral agreements signed over the past three days give rise to truly new impulses, despite the inevitable bureaucratic impasses. The realization that new ties to India are key to maintaining Germany's status in the world is clear to everyone here.
That said, shortly after the chancellor's plane departed for Berlin, questions about domestic policy disagreements began to swirl —though the journalist's discussions quickly shifted again once rumors began circulating that the Indians intend to name a solar-powered subway station in New Delhi after Merkel. It is also the last stop on the subway line — how (un)fitting.