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Leaders alike: 10 similarities between Obama and Modi

US President Barack Obama and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi are, of course, ideologically poles apart. Obama set out being on the left of the Democratic Party, Modi is a right-wing Hindu nationalist.

india Updated: Nov 25, 2014 13:35 IST
Sushil Aaron

US President Barack Obama and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi are, of course, ideologically poles apart. Obama set out being on the left of the Democratic Party, Modi is a right-wing Hindu nationalist. But there are some uncanny similarities in their road to power and ways they have handled it, particularly during Obama's first term.

1. Both are intensely political individuals who have roots in forms of community organising, one mobilising underprivileged neighbourhoods in Chicago; Modi crisscrossing the country as a RSS pracharak and BJP party worker. They are cerebral figures in different ways, with perhaps a measure of chilly detachment that appeals to loyalists and reinforces their power.

2. Both attained office battling unpopular regimes that were led by dynastic figures. Obama rode the tide against George W. Bush who was an embarrassment all round, owing to his misguided 'war on terror' and an indefensible invasion of Iraq. Modi similarly capitalised on the general fatigue with UPA rule, the various corruption scandals and directed his attacks on Rahul Gandhi and the Nehru-Gandhi lineage.

3.Modi and Obama built huge warchests and outspent their rivals in election campaigns. Obama raised $1.1 billion in campaign contributions for the 2012 election alone. There is no definite handle on the amount spent by the Modi campaign; guesses about BJP's advertising budget for the general election vary between $500-670 million. Many feel the actual figure was much more.

4. Modi and Obama beat formidable female rivals who they went on to appoint in their cabinet. Hillary Clinton lost the Democrat nomination in 2008 to Obama after securing an impressive 18 million votes - and subsequently became the US Secretary of State. Sushma Swaraj is believed to have opposed Modi's nomination as BJP's prime ministerial candidate but eventually acquiesced with his rise, joining his cabinet as minister for external affairs.

5. Both concentrate foreign policy in their hands, excluding their foreign ministries. As former defence secretary Robert Gates wrote in his memoir, Duty, the White House and National Security Agency dominated decision-making in Obama's first term often at the expense of State and Pentagon.

Clinton met Obama every week but she was relegated to a more representational role, rather than be allowed to drive policy. Swaraj is in a similar position - not entirely brushed aside owing to her political standing but not allowed to steer the policy agenda either. The key decision to call off foreign secretary talks with Pakistan in August was the PM's call. (The current US Secretary of State John Kerry probably has more latitude than Clinton had.)

6. Obama and Modi have similar approaches to public diplomacy and managing the narrative. Both ran path-breaking online elections campaigns but constricted communications with the public on assuming power. Obama's direct communications with constituents tapered off soon after assuming the presidency and the Modi has passed clear instructions to his cabinet to avoid briefing the media.

Obama looks a very tired figure now in his second term but the Democratic Party still has a range of allies and supporters who can be deployed in newspapers, television networks and other platforms. Modi too has scores of storm troopers embedded across New Delhi and state capitals.

7. Obama and Modi see themselves as outsiders in their capital cities, and practice a brand of politics honed in their provincial patch. Obama was a relatively junior senator from Illinois who captured national attention through the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention and posited himself as being everything the corrupt Washington elite was not. In his Independence Day speech, Modi spoke of being an outsider to Delhi "far removed from the elite classes".

8. Obama and Modi are also shaped by a style of politics they practiced in Chicago and Gujarat respectively. Obama once told his presidential opponent John McCain "I'm skinny, but I'm tough. I'm from Chicago".

The city of Chicago is said to have the most ruthless politics in the US. Alexandra Starr made this argument in a Spectator column stating that the Obama's political campaign was known for its discipline and ensuring voter turnout (not unlike Modi's). The Obama team was also artful, fiercely combative, unleashing tough tactics behind closed doors.

Obama like Modi had political figures in his team known for their take-no-prisoners approach to opponents. In his first term, Obama had Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff who was used as a battering ram to tackle the Congress and settle intra-administration quarrels. Robert Gates writes in Duty that Emanuel was known for his "inexhaustible supply of 'f-bombs'" and "terrorising everyone, even cabinet officers".

Modi famously manoeuvred his way up in Gujarat's politics and triumphed over the powerful Patel lobby that dominated state politics for decades, eventually sending veterans like Keshubhai Patel into oblivion. He also has an abrasive Rahm Emanuel-like figure in Amit Shah on his side who is not known for building consensus, as Shiv Sena recently found out. Modi has also drafted trusted bureaucrats from Gujarat into key roles in the prime minister's office.

9. Like many politicians, power has moderated their positions - and in some cases vastly altered them. Obama had a good record on civil liberties during his time as senator, but as president he has refused to shutdown Guantanamo, scaled up drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, and prosecuted whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) and Edward Snowden - over Wikileaks and NSA's surveillance programme respectively.

Likewise Modi was critical of UPA's "biryani diplomacy" with Pakistan in 2013 but went on to invite his counterpart Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in. Candidate Modi spoke of China's "expansionist mindset" in February, but he has been fairly conciliatory towards Beijing notwithstanding recent 'incursions' by PLA troops in Ladakh. Such 'compromises' will likely continue.

10.Lastly, not a point of comparison, but an argument that Obama's experience offers lessons to Modi on the inevitability of political decline. Three factors worked against Obama which Modi too will encounter: First, unexpected events like the financial crisis, Ukraine and ISIS provide little space for burnishing authority.

Two, Obama did not keep his own ideological allies together; he lost the Left by taking hardline positions on Snowden and other national security issues, and, lastly, Obama gained a reputation as an aloof, arrogant figure incapable of making deals with different power centres in an intensely differentiated, federal political system - not unlike India's. The mood in Washington and America changed soon after.

Obama's trajectory, from the dizzy euphoria of 2008 to the relatively low poll ratings he now registers, shows that contemporary politics rarely throw up messianic figures who can outlast the scrutiny of media-saturated cultures. It's not clear if Modi can buck that trend.