Obama and Modi Make Magic

The main plotline of Obama's visit was Indian pride.

Two of a kind?

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

When I was growing up, a familiar and much-loved figure in the lives of many middle-class Indian children was the elderly relative or family friend who traveled abroad and brought back wondrous stories and treats: Toblerone chocolate, Adidas sneakers, tales of machines that delivered cans of Coke or of people who drank wine without getting drunk. Last weekend, I was reminded of this magician-figure -- such characters have been in increasingly shorter supply with the liberalization of India’s economy two decades ago -- by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Upon decisively winning the elections last May, Modi embarked on an extended program of travel to developed countries to reset India’s relations on a new, more ambitious plane. Even so, his main audience was at home: he wanted to prove to the people of India that they had a voice in the world consistent with the size of the country, and -- just in case they were not convinced -- to have the great men of the world reinforce that message. Everywhere he went -- the U.S., Japan, Australia -- Modi received a rock star’s welcome. When he finally came home, this nationalist wanted to give his citizens a present that confirmed their new self-image.

And so last week, for his first Republic Day in office -- a day when India celebrates its republican history, diversity and military might with a grand pageant in New Delhi -- Modi dipped into his hat. And he pulled out –– President Barack Obama. The most powerful man in the world, come all the way on Air Force One to meet the Indian people at the special invitation of the prime minister himself.

Of course, Obama came to take Indo-U.S. relations forward on the strategic level as well, as policy experts in both countries had long been saying he should. He had many conversations with Modi on all manner of important issues. And the two men gave the media a Big Story to broadcast by ironing out their differences over the stalled 2006 Indo-U.S. nuclear deal (an accord that Modi’s party, which was then the opposition, opposed stridently at the time).

But the main plotline of the story, carefully orchestrated by Modi (perhaps the most versatile Indian engineer of political symbolism since Mahatma Gandhi), was Indian pride. 

Or, to use the word breaking out like a rash over the language of diplomacy these days, the main point of Obama’s visit was its “optics.” Every detail of the spectacle invited exegesis and, thereby, the participation of the people in the making of a grand story.

Wasn’t it wonderful of Modi to break protocol by traveling in person to the airport to welcome Obama, and by giving him a big hug when they met? Wasn’t it wonderful that our prime minister could call the American president just plain “Barack,” like a high-school buddy? Who scripted Obama’s hit allusion, in Hindi, to the Bollywood film "DDLJ" in a speech? And was it disrespectful of the U.S. president to be chewing gum as he watched the parade?

“Undoubtedly, the visit was very high on optics,” declared Dr. Vijay Chauthaiwale on Rediff.com. Kaveree Bamzai detected a “visible optics of emerging trust” -- though a quick glance at the glaring gulf between U.S. aid to Pakistan and to India, respectively, reveals its own sobering truth about India’s place in America’s view of South Asia.

In the Indian Express, Praveen Swami, in a fascinating piece called “Barack and I,” wrote: “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.” Harsh Pant opined that the Obama visit was proof of “the remarkable ability of Modi to understand how modern day politics and diplomacy work. The optics of his visit to the U.S. last September was precisely what convinced Washington about Modi’s ability to deliver.”

Meanwhile, another kind of optics -- that of digital cameras -- revealed Modi’s audacious advance in fashion: a suit, apparently made on Savile Row, with stripes that turned out on close inspection to be the words “Narendra Damodardas Modi” running all the way down in gold. Some thought this in terrible taste, some found it breathtakingly daring. In any case, it raised the fascinating question of what the optics of this sartorial self-referencing (another cool phrase for this is “semiotics of attire”) were meant to communicate.

(Well, whatever works for the prime minister should work for me, too. I’m going to meet my publisher next week to discuss my new novel, and I’ve just ordered a suit with CHANDRAHAS CHOUDHURY running all the way across the material from left to right.)

But could it be that Obama, in the middle of the last term of his somewhat underwhelming presidency, was content merely to play the part scripted for him by Modi? Apparently not. At an event in Delhi on the last evening of his trip he declared, “Across our two great countries we have Hindus and Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, Jews and Buddhists and Jains and so many faiths.”

That sounds like just another piece of presidential boilerplate -- until you realize that this is a sentiment that Modi himself has rarely, if ever, voiced. And that instead of proudly reeling off the people of India’s many faiths and sects, he prefers to take refuge behind the slogan “development for all.” “Christian” and “Muslim” are (alongside “February 2002”) Modi’s least favorite words, and the RSS -- the Hindu nationalist organization he served for many decades -- has recently gone into overdrive insisting that all Indians are really Hindu, and celebrating the “reconversion” of some Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. On all this, Modi has been silent, and it seems he’ll continue to keep his thoughts to himself. Unless he was using Obama as a front to reproach the zealots whom he himself cannot rebuke in public.

One hopes -- and so, it seemed, did Obama -- that a war on India’s religious diversity isn't among the many further grand projects that Modi has in mind.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.