An odd couple: What Modi, Obama have in common

  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jan 25, 2015 16:59 IST

Afew months after election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was asked why he had agreed to fly to a summit with Barack Obama. After all, the United States was the last country to end your diplomatic boycott. The Indian leader’s response: “I was not going to ask for an invitation from the Americans. As it is Obama invited me and as a prime minister, I cannot say no.” This was in line with what Modi aides said during the campaign. The US visa ban wrankled. They spoke of keeping Washington at arm’s length. Obama was an isolationist and a lame duck. The new BJP government could wait for the Republicans to return to power.

Cut to November and the storyline couldn’t be more different. Obama, say sources, walked up to Modi during the East Asia Summit in Myanmar, pointed to the Indian prime minister as the one leader who could “get things done.” Modi replied one thing he hadn’t done was secure a guest for Republic Day — would Obama be interested? The US president accepted on the spot and that’s why the Taj Mahal is crawling with Secret Service personnel today.

Why has the mojo between Modi and Obama changed so much? On the face of it, the two men are very different. Modi is a religious nationalist. Obama comes from the leftwing of a liberal party. The Indian leader’s formative years were parochial, punctuated by spiritual searching. The US president is a one-man United Nations, among the most cosmopolitan leaders in the world. The 2002 anti-Muslim riots will always shadow Modi. Obama won a Nobel peace prize for, as far as anyone can tell, just being. Yet they are both rebels with a cause. They defied the circumstances of their origins, rising to the top of the totem pole. Modi’s personal discipline allowed him to escape being another small-town godman. Obama avoided becoming, in his own words, “an angry black man”.

They are both “political outsiders” who dethroned the mainstream leaders of their respective parties, says Modi’s campaign media advisor, columnist Ashok Malik. LK Advani and Hillary Clinton could have a small summit and compare notes. Modi still has a chip on his shoulder over Delhi’s establishment. Obama never adjusted to the banditry inside Washington’s Beltway. It was often said that “everything about politics that Bill Clinton loved, Obama hated.”

Speak to those who have dealt with them personally and other similarities become evident. Modi, say his fellow politicians, is a “man whose eyes never smile”. Staffers who have sat in Oval Office meetings with Obama describe him as “cold-blooded” and “impersonal.” The two probably recognise the transactional and unsentimental streak they share. This doesn’t mean they are robots. A Washington lobbyist says Obama took Modi to his family quarters in the White House and spoke of his desire to bring his daughters to India — an unusual gesture for a president fanatical about protecting his family from the din of White House activity. Modi has taken his duties as Republic Day host personally, chairing meetings on everything from the meal menus to the type of floats to be paraded.

Utility first

But the hard rock under the Modi-Obama relationship is utilitarian. There is an assumption Obama, a president whose foreign policy has been “come home troops and rebuild America,” has only little interest in India. The truth is more nuanced. If there is an “Obama doctrine,” it is a firm belief among his inner circle that US foreign policy is over-militarised and needs to change. One pillar of this doctrine: as the US prunes its defence spend, it should compensate by getting regional powers to do more to run the world.

India was at the top of this agenda when Obama came to office. Says a White House source, “Indians don’t quite believe it, but Obama genuinely believes that a strong Indo-US partnership is vital to this vision.” This is why his first state banquet was for Manmohan Singh. But Singh proved to be a partner in absentia. The passage of the flawed nuclear liability law was the last straw for Obama. He genuinely liked Singh, one of his former National Security Council advisors says, but the India file never went to the White House after the third year.

Obama sees in Modi what was missing all this time: an Indian leader who could deliver. By coming to India a second time, he helps to manoeuvre in place a missing piece of his global agenda. This includes his “pivot to Asia” and ending the US’s traditional Europe-Middle East obsession. Obama also hopes to rope Modi into what he hopes will be his big foreign policy legacy: climate change. The Indian leader, even when he was chief minister, has often spoken of his “special interest” in the dangers of global warming. “In his second term, Obama is revisiting the places he likes and the policies he believes in,” says Ashley Wills, a retired South Asia hand of the State Department. India fits in with this.

What does Modi get out of this? Obama is a fading star. A Republic Day summit has utility for Modi. The Indian prime minister accepts that having the US on your side is enormously helpful: large multinationals give you money, countries like Japan and Israel are more receptive, rivals like China and Pakistan are warier. His aides now speak of the need to “embed” the US relationship in the fabric of Indian foreign policy, burying the anti-Americanism that still infects ideologues of both the RSS and the Communist Party of India. If Modi waited for a US president with authority as chief guest, then the next available Republic Day would be 2018.

Says Daniel Twining, foreign policy analyst for the German Marshall Fund, “I think their friendship is reflective of the fact that Indians and Americans generally esteem each other irrespective of personal politics, worldviews, et cetera. We’ve seen this now with Vajpayee and Clinton; Vajpayee and Bush; Bush and Singh; Singh and Obama; and Obama and Modi.” The embedding is truly on.

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