This Relentless Focus On Modi-Obama's Bromance Comes At A Price

08/06/2016 11:15 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi after their remarks to reporters following a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. June 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

You like me. You really really like me.

Is that what the Narendra Modi - Barack Obama meeting should be about?

Narendra Modi lands in Washington DC with a long to-do list.

There’s a Logistics Exchange Memorandum Agreement India and USA are negotiating. There’s a proposed deal with Westinghouse to build a nuclear plant. India wants US support for its membership of the Nuclear Supporters Group. The US wants India to ratify the Paris Climate Agreement. There’s talk about an agreement to purchase F-16 and F-18 fighter planes which would be manufactured in India.

And yet so much of the coverage is about the personal chemistry between the two leaders.

modi obama

(U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd R) pauses for translation during remarks to reporters after meeting with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2nd L) in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. June 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Time Magazine talks about how the two have developed “not only a strong partnership between their two countries, but a close personal friendship as well.” The Associated Press wonders whether this is “genuine friendship” between two powerful men that “transcends politics, transcends diplomacy”.

A USA Today headline goes “Obama, Modi test their ‘special wavelength’ in White House meeting”.

In other words, as they meet for the seventh time, is this bromance for real?

In other words, as they meet for the seventh time, is this bromance for real?

No one cares or spills that much ink about whether David Cameron and Angela Merkel really really like each other. Part of this bromance preoccupation stems from the fact that Obama and Modi form an odd couple. There was no reason for them to like each other off the bat. The New York Times writes “There are few relationships between President Obama and another world leader more unlikely than the one he has with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India.”

Why? The Times says Obama has made “protection of minorities a central pillar of his life. And he has argued that criticism and dissent are core tenets of democracy.”

Modi is not known for strong championship of either issue. Even as Modi greets the man he once again calls his “close friend” in Washington DC, Sadhvi Prachi, the VHP leader in India announces “now that we have achieved the mission of a Congress-free India, it is time to make India Muslim-free.” Rather more peculiarly, the Times also points out that while Obama is a devoted family man, Modi “abandoned his arranged marriage decades ago”.

modi obama

(U.S. President Barack Obama and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) talk as they have coffee and tea together in the gardens of Hyderabad House in New Delhi January 25, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/File Photo)

Before the first Obama-Modi meet in 2014, Tunku Vardarajan doubted the two would hit it off. Obama, he wrote in The Daily Beast was “the exquisitely calibrated product of American liberalism” while Modi was the “blunt spoken nationalist, opposed to welfare and the ‘appeasement’ of minorities.” He went so far as to say there was probably “vigorous contempt” in their hearts for each other.

There are few relationships between President Obama and another world leader more unlikely than the one he has with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India.

But belying all expectations there’s Modi breaking protocol by pulling Obama into a bear hug. There’s Obama penning a fan letter to Modi for Time Magazine saying his story “from poverty to Prime Minister – reflects the dynamism and potential of India’s rise”. And there’s Modi referring to the President as “Barack” as if he’s an old buddy as in “Barack and I have formed a bond, a close friendship”. And he took care to let the world know they even crack jokes together.

Now as Barack enters the last months of his presidency, Narendra Modi comes to visit his “close friend” again the one with whom he told the Wall Street Journal he shares “a special friendship, a special wavelength”. Vikas Swarup, the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs tweets out photographs of the two hugging each other in the Oval Office as “the warmth of a friendship that endures”.

Indo-US relations should be about treaties, business deals, defence agreements. But strangely they have become all about the personal chemistry of these two.

Part of it is Modi’s own temperament. In India he has been strangely coolly aloof with the electorate. When a hot button issue roils the nation, and preoccupies the media, whether it’s Dadri or Kanhaiya Kumar, Modi tends to say nothing, not even to calm tempers. Obama, on the other hand, often wades into a national controversy to try and be the conscience of his nation on a variety of issues -- whether it’s a gun shooting or a Muslim boy detained for carrying an alarm clock to school.

modi obama hug

(Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) hugs US President Barack Obama upon his arrival on Air Force One at Air Force Station Palam in New Delhi on January 25, 2015. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

But when Modi goes abroad he projects a different warmer persona. This Modi is all smiles. He talks a lot more about Gandhi. He pulls world leaders into selfies. He breaks with protocol to hug them. He projects the warmth shown to him by a leader like Obama as an upgrade in India’s status in the world’s eyes.

But this relentless focus on the personal chemistry between the two leaders comes at the expense of the actual physics of the relationship between the two countries. That relationship has to be measured in concrete deliverables, support for key treaties, trade deals. Instead it’s measured in hugs. While the personal rapport can help ease the process and even seal the deal, the purpose of a visit should not be the PDA between the two leaders. It does not matter if they really really like each other. What matters is if the two countries get the deals they want out of these meetings.

But when Modi goes abroad he projects a different warmer persona. This Modi is all smiles. He talks a lot more about Gandhi. He pulls world leaders into selfies.

Obama, after all, is on his way out. Modi will have to deal with a new President of the United States next year. The last thing he should want is to have those relations overshadowed with nostalgic comparisons with his “special wavelength” with Obama. Otherwise the soundtrack for this latest public display of their affection for each other would be, as Anup Kahle, Deputy Foreign Editor at Buzzfeed tweets,

“Lag ja gale, ki phir yeh state visit ho na ho, Shayad Donald Trump ki term mein, Mulaaqaat ho na ho.”

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