When the BRICS annual summit was held at Fortaleza in Brazil in July last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was hardly six weeks into his new job. Modi was famous internationally more on account of his handling of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat than as a visionary world leader. When his battle-hardened BRICS counterparts sat down with him in Fortaleza, they would have been curious that India had just elected a prime minister whom the Americans held as a pariah and had stigmatised with a visa ban for a decade.

However, when Modi lands in Ufa, Russia, on Wednesday, there is a sea change in the paradigm. He is no more an enigma. The BRICS leaders have the benefit of Modi’s one-year track record as statesman.

For sure, there is bound to be some uneasiness. At a time when the BRICS under Russia’s chairmanship, and supported by China, is hoping to turn left, challenging the US agenda to dominate the world order, Modi’s India seems veering sharply to the right. This is one thing.

Equally, a new cutting edge has appeared to India’s competitive mindset vis-à-vis China, which was not there under the previous government. The BRICS is a cozy little tent of just five countries and when one member bristles at the swagger of another who is doing remarkably well in life, be it out of envy, fear, disgust or paranoia, there is a potential for discord and disequilibrium, and the little tent suddenly begins to look a bit too small to contain the choler.

Third, the BRICS summit at Ufa is taking place at a juncture when its key members, Russia and China, feel peeved at the behaviour of the United States as the world hegemon, which flouts international law.

But India under Modi’s leadership sees the US in an altogether different light and, in fact, Modi himself feels “extremely excited” about the US-India partnership, as he said in his message to the “Dearest Sisters and Brothers of USA” on July 4.

Modi wrote with incredible optimism that “strong India-US ties will benefit… the world at large” and that “our relations are going to get even better in times to come.” No doubt, with days to go for the BRICS summit, it is hugely significant that Modi chose to flaunt the centrality of India’s strategic relationship with the US in his world-view. This needs some explaining.

Chill towards US

It doesn’t need elaboration that Russia’s relations with the US are today at their lowest point in the post-Cold War era. Moscow believes that the US is working to destroy Russia by weakening it and forcing a regime change on it with a view to reset the global strategic balance in America’s favour.

In a scathing attack on the US, albeit indirectly, President Vladimir Putin told a meeting of Russia’s Security Council last Friday, “We know the reasons for the pressure being put on Russia. We follow an independent domestic and foreign policy and our sovereignty is not up for sale. This does not go down well in some quarters, but this is inevitable… Colleagues, recent events show that we cannot hope that some of our geopolitical opponents will change their hostile course anytime in the foreseeable future.”

Those are sharp words, stemming from the assessment by the Kremlin that an adversarial relationship exists today between Russia and the US.

As for China, tensions have dramatically escalated in its relations with the US as the two countries locked horns over the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, where Washington alleges that Beijing is indulging in provocative moves, while Beijing maintains that it is only acting within the its sovereign prerogatives. The propaganda war has also intensified lately with Beijing releasing last week its own report on the US’s abysmal human rights record.

We cannot be dismissive of the above as mere Russian or Chinese phobias. Indeed, the 2015 National Military Strategy produced by the US Joints of Staff and released by the Pentagon last Wednesday also suggests that Russia and China are the biggest threats to the security of the US.  The report paints a picture of China and Russia as aggressors that threaten the US’ security interests and speaks of a growing possibility of America fighting a major conflict with one or both of these two big powers.

Similarly, the relations between the US and Brazil have chilled for much of the recent years following the disclosures by the ex-CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 that the US’s National Security Agency had been tapping Rousseff’s telephone. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is traveling to Ufa hot on the heels of the latest exposé by Wikileaks that US intelligence has continued to target her, her aides, her secretary, her chief of staff and the presidential palace and even the phone in the presidential jet.

This after US President Barack Obama personally reassuring Rousseff a few months ago that American intelligence would not spy on her or her government officials any more. It appears that Obama hasn’t kept his promise.

Politicising the group

Clearly, India is the odd man out here. The Modi government doesn’t see the US in negative terms. Through the past one-year period under Modi’s watch, India-US relationship has regained its verve. The exceptionally warm reception that Obama accorded to Modi during his visit to Washington in September, Modi’s unprecedented invitation to Obama to be the honoured guest at India’s Republic Day in January, the so-called Vision Statement on Asia-Pacific issued during Obama’s visit to Delhi, which brought India closer to the US’s so-called “pivot” strategy in Asia than ever before, the defence pact signed last month by the two countries – all these suggest that the India-US ties are on a rising graph.

But what really sets India at odds with Russia and China is one major leitmotif of the US-Indian partnership – namely, the grave concern of the two countries over an assertive China. This, of course, stands out in sharp contrast with the Sino-Russian entente today, which is unprecedented in the entire history of their relationship.

Plainly put, Moscow hopes to give more ballast to the BRICS as a political grouping in the international system, which dovetails with Russia’s foreign-policy priorities. Arguably, Beijing is au fait with the “politicisation” of BRICS at this point in time, even if it may not say so, when the Sino-US relationship is increasingly becoming acrimonious.

On the contrary, India’s preference will be to keep the BRICS as largely an economic grouping based on the commonality of interests of five emerging powers that seek their due share in the decision-making in the world economic architecture dominated by the West – and not to “politicise” the grouping. Of course, Modi will feel embarrassed if the BRICS becomes overtly critical of the US in any respect.

India’s concerns

Fundamentally, what does India hope to get out of BRICS within such a foreign-policy matrix that gives top priority to harmonising Indian policies with the US’s regional strategies? Indeed, there is a profound contradiction here.

The prevailing thinking in South Block is that Russia is a declining power with which Delhi would have limited scope to engage in the period ahead.

China, on the other hand, is increasingly viewed as a rival and there is much resentment within the establishment that Beijing is encroaching into India’s perceived sphere of influence in South Asia and is showing the flag in the Indian Ocean.

Delhi feels frustrated over the growing success of China’s “win-win” diplomacy in India’s neighbourhood. India has preferred to stay aloof from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its strategy for connectivity between Asia and Europe, and let its displeasure be known to Beijing about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Having said that, India cannot do without BRICS, either. The fact remains that the BRICS is the only forum of international weightage where India can join hands with like-minded countries to press its case for a piece of the pie in the international order. Modi may have an excellent rapport with Obama or Japan’s Abe, but that will not help India advance its case as a rising power with burning ambitions, because history shows that the entrenched powers never vacate their privileges or suo motu share them. Thus, it is a significant marker that finance minister Arun Jaitley is travelling to Russia with Modi for the formal inauguration of the BRICS bank.

Moscow and Beijing understand perfectly well that Modi is passionately devoted to a US-centric foreign policy. But they also factor in that, nonetheless, it is important to remain engaged with an important regional power like India within the BRICS framework.

Therefore, they will go the extra league to accommodate India’s concerns and interests. After all, they know that as a declining power, the US will find it extremely difficult to accommodate India’s charter of demands as time passes, which, in turn, will prompt India to turn more toward its natural habitat of BRICS. In sum, Russia and China will play the long game and wait for the prodigal son to return home after the peregrination, sadder and wiser.