The tale of two leaders: Why Modi and Xi are similar yet different

  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 17, 2015 08:40 IST

Indian officials have spoken of the 'unprecedented chemistry' shown between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping over the past three days. While it is questionable how much emotional connect world leaders can afford, the Indian and Chinese leaders have points of convergence.

Modi and Xi are said to be part of a new wave of nationalistic, assertive Asian leaders that includes Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Indonesia’s Jokowi. All of them profess to do more than just rule; they have technicolour visions of national revival.

Xi combines his 'Chinese Dream' brand with the phrase 'the great revival of the Chinese nation'. Modi is more modest, but Swaach Bharat and the Gujarat model are not just stand alone concepts – they are part of a larger nation-building canvas.

National visions are common. However, Modi and Xi are strikingly similar in their personal styles. They have imposed highly centralised decision-making systems in their countries, isolating or wiping out sources of opposition within their own parties. The Prime Minister’s Office under Modi can only be matched by Indira Gandhi’s in authority – and is easily the largest PMO in Indian history. Xi, similarly, has taken on an unprecedented number of leadership positions, even shrinking the all-powerful politburo.

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Centralisation is not uncommon among leaders who have wide-ranging and radical economic agendas. And both clearly want to end business as usual in their respective countries. Unsurprisingly, Singapore is a model of emulation for the two of them.

The other side of this is the cultivation of a populist image. If Modi speaks of his tea-selling childhood, Xi speaks of the rural hardship he suffered during the Cultural Revolution. The Indian leader’s frugal ways are reflected in Xi’s eschewing of limousines, habit of carrying his own umbrella – rarities among Chinese leaders.

It also goes with a wariness of the press. Modi privately rails against the “elite media”, even while monitoring what it says about him. Xi has imposed some of the tightest media controls on China in decades. Notably, both maintain a personal tab on government internet policies. Yet there are key differences: Modi has pushed for an internet free to political dissent, while Xi’s China is bereft of Google and Facebook. Unfettered social media has a utility in a democracy that it doesn’t in a totalitarian state.

But for all their public bonhomie, Modi and Xi are known for their personal aloofness. Says China expert Francois Godement of the European Council for Foreign Relations, “Xi looks and acts like a big bear, smiling and hugging everyone, but he is a loner who doesn’t like a status of equality with others.” Modi has made a political asset of his lack of family and monastic ways. While the Indian Prime Minister privately rates Japan’s Abe as his closest international friend, Xi, argues Godement, “doesn’t have a personal bond with any foreign leader”. Their inner circles are parochial: Modi’s Gujarat team is matched by Xi’s Shaanxi circle.

Ultimately, a world leader is close to those who can help him with his or her political agenda. “China's previous experience with Modi as Gujarat's chief minister convinced the Chinese that Modi is a person they can do business with," says Hoo Tiang Boon of Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School. Modi sees something similar in Xi: hence their willingness to even grasp the nettle of the border dispute.

They also both reflect the rising nationalism, fed by expanding middle classes, of their respective countries. “Xi respects Modi's nationalism, he clearly likes guys who are a bit on the tough side, and understands India is not going to be a US stooge,” says Sinologist Richard Rigby of the Australian National University.

Agrees Hoo Tiang Boon, who says “both are strong men and nationalists” and this gives them a degree of personal overlap. Neither has much use for preaching from foreigners. Modi takes satisfaction in watching countries that imposed visa bans on him falling over themselves to invite him today. Xi infamously said in 2009, "There are some bored foreigners, with full stomachs, who have nothing better to do than point fingers at us [China].”

If Modi is “Namo” in India, Xi is referred to as “Xi Dada” even by the official Chinese media. But these nicknames are created to hide their hard-nosed political instincts. Their personal chemistry will only go as far as their national interests let them. For now, notes Hiang Tian Boom, “The Chinese state media says favourable things about Modi.”

However, statecraft is not entertainment. In any case, Xi’s favourite movies are the cold-blooded Godfather series while Modi doesn’t watch anyone.


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