As Prime Minister Modi’s US visit began, Gardiner Harris, the ex-India correspondent of the New York Times published this rather predictably negative article. Gardiner seems to be shocked, nay dismayed, that President Obama could forge a friendship with a ‘man like Modi’, and seemed to hypothesize that we have all been conned into believing this friendship.
I believe that Mr Harris is wrong. Thus, I will take this chance to suggest to Mr Harris a few reasons why Modi and Obama would share a good relationship:
First, when PM Modi and President Obama view the world from atop their nations, both leaders probably see a world of rising disorder. They see autocracy making a comeback in Russia and China, religious fundamentalism taking hold in much of the Islamic world, dysfunction consuming South America, and Europe sleepwalking itself to Brexit and decline. Perhaps they see, in their respective nations, two large bulwarks of democracy, diversity, and idealism. Perhaps, being statesmen and visionaries, they realize the critical importance of the US-Indian friendship in such testing times, and see in each other two leaders, determined to protect the world of order. I am sure that the symbolism of Modi prostrating himself before India’s Parliament building before he entered it for the first time was not lost on Obama and many Americans, just as American commitment to democracy and fighting religious terrorism has not been lost on Modi and India.
Second, Modi is the first Indian Prime to be unabashedly pro-America. This is a welcome change from the “non-alignment” of Jawaharlal Nehru, or the anti-Americanism of successive socialist Congress governments.
Modi, a Gujarati, plugged into a huge Gujarati-American diaspora hailing from a state that is a natural bastion of pro-American idealism. He shares none of the baggage of previous Indian governments. His instinctive pro-business and pro-free market thinking is probably a welcome change from Indian leaders past and many global leaders that Obama encounters these days.
Perhaps as well, Obama recognizes the magnanimity of Modi – a lesser leader could have taken umbrage at the crude visa embargo the US had placed on a him only a few years ago making him a global pariah. Many in his team would have been baying for revenge, and not many in India would have denied him his moment of pique. But Modi the statesman, has never let the past impact Indo-US relations. Modi has put the interests of his nation, of this important friendship first, something an ever gracious Obama would recognize.
Mostly, though, I feel that the Modi-Obama friendship is one borne of similar circumstance. Of two transformational leaders, who rose from modest circumstance and against severe odds, to be swept into power on a tidal wave of “hope and change”. Of two men who believed they could reverse the suddenly declining circumstances of their nations, but who faced immense frustration and road blocks from a hostile scorched-earth opposition. And two patriotic optimists who believe in their own messianic mission as well as in the destiny of their great nations to be leaders in a world of freedom and order.
If this relationship does put the worlds greatest democracies on a path to closer and greater friendship, then it is one that is good not just for India and the US, but for the democratic world in general. Thus, let us ignore Mr Harris and his band of naysayers and celebrate one of the pivotal relationships in modern foreign affairs. Sniping and criticising is easy, leading two prickly potential allies to a sound and secure alliance is not.