From reservations to high fives, the evolution of the Obama-Modi chemistry

By: K.P. Nayar
Updated: 08 Jun 2016 04:59 AM
WASHINGTON: Narendra Modi is used to being the "first among equals." That is how convention, handed down to India from British parliamentary and cabinet traditions, describe the job of a Prime Minister. But Modi is in a curious position of discovering that he is the first among equals in Washington too.

When Barack Obama met Modi in March for the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, the US President jogged the Prime Minister's memory of an invitation the White House had communicated to the Prime Minister's Office in New Delhi some time earlier. Modi had not responded to it. Obama put his hand on Modi's shoulder and explained the rationale behind that invitation.

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The President said he had only a few months left in the White House. Among other things, he wanted to use the final phase of his presidency to thank several foreign leaders with whom he had worked through two terms by inviting them to the White House and bidding them goodbye in the historic Oval Office or in the famed Rose Garden. And Obama wanted Modi to be the first of those leaders to visit him as part of that exercise. The first among equal friends of Obama.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Jean Pierre Harrison (third from left), husband of late astronaut Kalpana Chawla, and family members after the wreath-laying ceremony at Columbia Space Shuttle Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Pictures by Jay Mandal /On Assignment

The President's line of reasoning and his personal intervention on the night of March 31 as a follow up to the invitation left Modi with little choice on his current travel to Washington. That is the untold story of the ongoing Modi trip to the White House, according to sources who were within earshot of the conversation between the President and the Prime Minister.

Even then, Modi did not commit himself to the President on the spot. Historically, Americans view an invitation to the White House as an exceptional honour.

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Many Third World leaders have been bowled over by such an invitation and done America's bidding for decades after being received in the Rose Garden by the most powerful politician on earth.

Even now, leaders of all persuasions from every corner of the world queue up to be invited into the White House. I know of Indian leaders - not any head of government, though - who have attempted to change their government's policies to suit Washington because the American President dropped in on their meetings with the US National Security Adviser and then invited the visitor to the blooming Rose Garden on a crisp, bright Spring forenoon.

Modi with astronaut Sunita Willams and her father Deepak Pandya at the memorial at Arlington

Perhaps Modi knew all this and did not want to appear to be too eager to return to the White House. Perhaps Modi did not know his own travel schedule, given his peripatetic habits. So he went back to New Delhi and discussed Obama's invitation threadbare with his senior aides who spoke frankly and laid out the pros and cons of undertaking his fourth visit to the US in two years.

A consensus evolved within the government that the opportunity to be the first among equals in Washington should not be missed.

Almost all the other world leaders who will follow Modi into the White House on "thank you and goodbye" visits in the coming months would have worked with Obama during much of the President's two four-year terms. Modi is an exception. He has been Prime Minister only for two years.

The cordiality between Obama and Modi was put on and strained to start with.

It is no secret in Washington that Obama harboured serious reservations about the controversial chief minister of Gujarat who was catapulted as Prime Minister in 2014, contrary to assessments by the US.

The American ambassador in Chanakyapuri at that time lost her job for the wrong assessment which put the US in a spot when Modi was chosen as the BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate in the last Lok Sabha election.

But those strains gradually melted away as the two men got to know each other and their friendship is now genuine.

The turning point in their chemistry came in Paris during the climate change conference last December. Obama was made to believe that Modi would be an ogre at the conference and that India would be the biggest stumbling block to any agreement in Paris.

At the same time, Obama was under pressure not to differentiate developing countries from developed ones in any climate change agreement. Modi saw that Obama was having a difficult time. He also realised that India needed to engage in some perception management about itself - and himself in person.

He overruled his officials and offered some bold solutions in Paris. Obama saw how Modi's mind was working and he too made clear to his officials and US climate lobbies that he was in charge as President.

The chemistry between Obama and Modi changed during the days they spent in Paris. The next time the two men met, they greeted each other with a high five, behind closed doors, of course, but to the great surprise of aides on both sides and other world leaders who were looking on.

It is that chemistry which is behind Obama's suggestion that Modi should be the first among equals as he starts bidding goodbye to his friends across continents.

-The Telegraph Calcutta