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Barack and I

The real audience for Modi’s high-energy diplomatic performance is at home.

Written by Praveen Swami | Published: January 27, 2015 12:36:12 am
Barack Obama, obama india visit, obama visit US President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In February 1833, the East India Company’s young secret envoy, Mohan Lal Kashmiri, stood before the glittering court of the Persian prince, Mirza Abbas, with just a split second to answer a question that could have shaped the destiny of kingdoms. Mirza Abbas had just asked if Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Western-trained soldiers “could compare in discipline and courage with his highness’s swordsmen”. The question was not an idle one. Persia’s eyes had been straying east across the Indus, and Kashmiri had to encourage them to turn away.

Kashmiri replied with gentle derision. Even the maharaja’s “darbar tent was made of Kashmir shawls and the floor was composed of the same costly material, and as for his army, if Sardar Hari Singh [Ranjit Singh’s military chief] were to cross the Indus, his highness would soon be glad to make good his retreat to Tabriz”.

Mirza Abbas had been waiting for just this answer — and used it to shoot a barb at the conservatives in his court, who were hostile to his efforts to Westernise Persia’s forces: “How inscrutable are the decrees of providence, which has conferred so much power on an infidel! Behold the effects of an English education!”

For the most part, the summit between United States President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been read as a kind of upmarket bazaar negotiation — two leaders haggling over goods and their price. The story of Kashmiri and Mirza Abbas, though, tells us that diplomacy is often better understood as a kind of performance theatre. The aesthetics of the Modi-Obama summit, just like the Kashmiri-Abbas summit, tell us important things about the actors, but also about the audience.

Pin-striped suits with the threads proclaiming his own name, bright saafa and bandhgala with designer shades, screaming orange shawl, beige dinner suit: Modi’s aesthetic is unmistakably new. The innovations might dismay the grey eminences of Indian power, but they would have been instantly comprehensible to a generation of Indians who have derived their personal aesthetics from Bollywood.

The pseudo-private chai pe charcha between Obama and Modi, televised live through carefully placed cameras, drew directly from Simi Garewal’s shows, down to the white sofas. Like those shows, it succeeded in appearing to give the audience a glimpse into the intimate life of the great.

Modi’s happy use of Obama’s first name would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. In 2009, the United Kingdom’s 40-something foreign secretary, David Miliband, horrified then Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee by referring to him by his first name, even as his 70-something interlocutor studiously kept referring to him as “his excellency”.

How does one make sense of these messages? To begin with, Modi is arguably India’s first genuinely populist prime minister, eager to tell the cohorts of aspirational young voters who brought him to power that he is one of them. The aesthetic reflects, after all, how they would like to dress for a wedding, or make up their living rooms — not quite the high culture from which past leaders drew legitimacy.

For this generation, Modi’s announcements of familiarity with Obama mark the coming of a time when non-Anglophone Indians can speak to the world on their own terms. “Far from the camera, when we speak, we become closer to each other,” Modi said. “Barack and I have forged a friendship. There is openness when we talk, and we even joke and share a lot together.”

The decision to have Wing Commander Pooja Thakur lead the ceremonial salute, and the key role played by women armed forces personnel in the Republic Day parade, was ostensibly meant to convey to the Obamas that India shares the US’s values on womens’ rights.
Yet, the display was a symbolic call on young, first-generation working women — a key group among Modi supporters — to physically empower themselves, rather than seek the protection of the state. This is a message women in the RSS’s front organisations have long been taught, through faux-weapons drills and self-defence classes. It may be a message that is short on policy content, but one that appeals to Modi’s base among the very young.

It is important to note that Modi’s message is also directed at his own party — a party in which Home Minister Rajnath Singh laments young Indians’ admiration for the West and Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj once cast the India-US deal as treason. Modi is thought to have disagreed with his party’s resistance to the nuclear deal as well as to FDI in retail. Through the summit, he is letting the BJP know his way has wide backing among the constituency that brought them to power.

We won’t know for decades, until the documents are declassified, just what Obama made of the message. The US president’s remarks over dinner could be interpreted either as admiration or snark: “I came to know he once fought against a crocodile. So, he’s tough and he also has style.”

Yet, it wasn’t Obama that Modi was seeking to impress — for that, there’s cash and geostrategy — it was his audience at home. The very fact that public debate has focused on the visit’s optics, rather than the granular policy detail, shows he’s succeeded.

“Even the loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality”, the great cultural critic, Theodor Adorno, once wrote, “the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion.” Yet, illusion can be a powerful force. Modi’s diplomacy offers to its audience a dream, one which allows for the grinding realities of their existence to be transcended, if only in the imagination.

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