Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have some serious balancing work to do when he meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan in central-eastern China's Hubei province on Friday, April 27. The meeting, which will last two days, is looked upon with a lot of interest from both sides following the Doklam standoff last year even as the concerned parties have described it as an "informal meeting" where the two leaders will mainly be a free speaking occasion with little institutional and procedural baggage.
The media has described the occasion as one when India and China will "reset" their relationship which has seen highs and lows in the recent times, asserting the viewpoint that the two Asian giants are more "frenemies" and enemies.
Modi has the onus
But even if it is a meeting of free talking, Modi will be under a certain amount of pressure to perform vis-à-vis Xi. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Modi will meet Xi more from a position of 'weakness' - something that leaders of all democratic nations face.
After coming to power four years ago, Modi had used his mandate in parliament to accelerate India's momentum in the external affairs - something which was being seen as an overhauling of the inertia that the previous Manmohan Singh government had seen. But as Modi approaches his next litmus test - the general elections of 2019 - he has to rewrite his entire script before presenting it to his people for approval.
This is in reverse to Xi who recently elevated himself to the position of a lifelong president of China. Modi has more hurdles to overcome and unlike Xi for whom asserting China's interest worldwide is an end, the Indian prime minister's quest for serving his country's interest is more the means to achieve the bigger goal of winning the election and extend his stay in power.
India needs China's economic support
Modi needs to mend fences with China because of economic reasons. Although he worked on improving India's relation with the US like his immediate predecessors, the advent of President Donald Trump has made things uncertain on India's western front. The impending Brexit also makes it necessary to rework on India's relations with the European Union and the United Kingdom and these necessitate India to look to improve its ties with China which it trails economically by far. There is no meaning for the Indian establishment to confront China thinking that the US and others will come to its aid. Trump is little-concerned anything other than things that suit his own imagination and thus, even if he wants India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan or names Asia-Pacific as Indo-Pacific, those steps are more to serve the USA's self-interests.
Modi is approaching 2019 polls with some baggage
Even if Modi is the most popular leader in India at the moment and there is little alternative to him, the growing allegations of minority bashing against Hindu fundamentalists in the country as well the spiralling cases of crime against women besides accusations that Modi eventually could not generate jobs and income are worries for the ruling BJP.
A year ahead of the next general elections, Modi cannot afford to lose his pride as a politician with a "56-inch chest" and reconciling with China from scratch is a useful way to show to his constituency that the Indian PM is not impulsive and hence unwise.
By reopening the dialogue route to China, Modi can urge the Chinese to improve their financial ties with India so that his government can create more employment opportunities or even speak over the extradition of Nirav Modi, the diamond merchant accused of defrauding several banks, from Hong Kong. These would help Modi to brighten his image at home as a leader who is never short of trying, even if success remained elusive.
The BRI question remains big
But there could still be some questions before Modi to answer. According to reports, China failed to convince India to get its support for its much talked about Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure project at the conclusion of a meeting on Tuesday, April 24.
India has not joined the USD57 billion project which is considered a game-changer by joining China with the rest of the world to promote its global ambitions and many of India's smaller neighbours in South Asia have joined it for the sake of their respective economic development. But India has remained defiant not to joint it since one of the BRI's key projects China-Pakistan Economic Corridor run through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir - a move that India considers a violation of its sovereignty.
For the observers, whether India joins the BRI which China feels would boost the former's economy will be a key determinant of the success of the Modi-Xi meeting on Friday.
If India joins hands with China on BRI, it would definitely be a massive breakthrough in their relations but at the same time, it would not be easy for the Indian PM to straightaway run into China's arms even if the prospects of returns are high as the noisy Opposition and the media would accuse his government of compromising with the national sovereignty for making its own electoral gains.