Pol­i­tics or friendship?

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Tim Sul­li­van

IT’S a friendship be­tween two pow er­ful 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

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