It’s a friendship between two powerful men that transcends politics, transcends diplomacy. It certainly looked like genuine affection when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled President Barack Obama into a bear hug as he stepped off Air Force One last year. An intimacy seemed to envelope the two as they sat in the garden of an old royal palace, smiling and chatting. There are the gushing comments: Modi “transcends the ancient and the modern,” Obama wrote in Time magazine. “Barack and I have formed a bond, a friendship,” Modi said.
It’s a friendship that was almost certainly displayed when Modi arrived Tuesday at the White House for his seventh meeting with the US president. Except, well, maybe they aren’t actually friends. “It’s politics. It’s pure politics,” said Mihir Sharma, a writer and editor with the Business Standard newspaper and a long time follower of Modi’s career. It’s a refrain heard repeatedly among India’s political analysts, who see calculation instead of genuine affection, with an Indian leader carefully shaping the country’s political narrative by putting himself at the centre of any diplomatic achievement.
Foreign leaders have willingly played along, appearing with the prime minister in choreographed private moments, whether it’s Modi taking a selfie in Shanghai with Chinese Premier Le Keqiang or pouring tea for Obama in New Delhi. “The Americans have realised that one of the ways that you can get something out of Mr. Modi is to emphasise his personal charm,” said Sharma. “It’s in the interests of pretty much every country he visits to stress the warmth of the personal relationship between their leader and the Indian prime minister.”
There is always theatre in politics, of course, and all politicians understand the need to sometimes say one thing while believing something else. But Modi has carefully woven his personality into India’s international standing, creating what former Indian national security adviser M.K. Narayanan has called a “personalised diplomacy.” In many ways it’s about respect. India has long felt slighted by the global powers, seeing itself as a powerful, highly educated country that is all-too-often dismissed for its poverty, dirty streets, and the lingering power of its caste system.
Friendships with world leaders, particularly one as powerful as Obama, prove to India — and its voters — that Modi can change that. “He comes back from his visits (abroad) to say: ‘I’ve been able to secure so much respect for India,’” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a Modi biographer. When Modi publicly refers to Obama by his first name “he’s claiming the position that he’s equal to the president of the United States. It’s kind of a reverse colonialism that India suffers from,” said Mukhopadhyay. “We don’t feel we’re important until we’ve gotten some kind of endorsement, especially from Western countries.”
In many ways, the Washington-New Delhi relationship has not lived up to its potential since a landmark 2008 nuclear energy agreement, signed during the administration of President George W. Bush. That agreement had seemed to signal the end of three decades of Cold War suspicions, when the US was more focused on ties with India’s archrival, Pakistan, and many in Washington believed India was far too friendly with the Soviet Union. Still, US-India trade has grown dramatically since the 2008 accord, expanding from $60 billion in 2009 to $107 billion in 2015. The US has also become a major supplier of military hardware to India. A defence logistics agreement is likely to be finalised during Modi’s Washington visit. A solution is also expected to be reached on the nuclear liability law.
But the question remains: Are they really friends? There’s no way to know. Both men regularly talk about their friendship, and officials from both countries highlight the relationship. Obama’s quotes, though, seem carefully gauged to avoid anything too personal: “We have developed a friendship and close working relationship,” he told Press Trust of India in an interview earlier this year. Modi, though, can be downright effusive, referring to their “personal chemistry” and hinting at a real intimacy. Asked last year what he and Obama had discussed during a private meeting, Modi responded coyly, quoting from a famous Bollywood musical: “Let that remain behind the veil.”
— Courtesy: The Christian Science Monitor