From cold shoulder to hugs: Obama and Modi’s unlikely friendship


At first glance, they might appear unlikely friends or allies. One is a right-wing nationalist and long-time international pariah, while the other is an unabashed liberal and Nobel peace laureate.

But as Barack Obama and Narendra Modi clasped each other in a bear hug on Sunday, the US and Indian leaders highlighted a bond that observers say stems in part from their humble backgrounds and mutual outsider status.

“They defied the circumstances of their origins, rising to the top of the totem pole,” Pramit Pal Chaudhuri wrote in the Hindustan Times.

“They are both rebels with a cause. “It’s less than a year since the Obama administration ended its cold-shouldering of Modi, who had been a pariah in Washington and other Western capitals for more than a decade.

The US was the last Western power to end Modi’s isolation which stemmed from an eruption of communal violence in Gujarat, the state on India’s west coast which Modi governed until his general election win last May.

With relations already soured in late 2013 by the arrest and strip-search of an Indian diplomat in New York, Time magazine predicted last year “the atmosphere could soon become even more tense” with Modi in power.

But not only has Modi refrained from voicing bitterness, his first meeting with Obama at the White House in September went far better than many had hoped.

“I think they struck up a very good chemistry,” the White House’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters, recalling how the pair had had a long discussion over dinner.

Weeks after that ice-breaker, the two governments resolved a row over food subsidies that had been blocking a global trade agreement, underlining the sense that the pair could do business together.

While Obama enjoyed the company of Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh, it was never clear whether the mild-mannered premier or Congress party president Sonia Gandhi called the shots.

US officials say Obama has savoured dealing with a leader who, thanks to his thumping election majority, can get things done.

Mutual appreciation society:

Obama’s top diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry, hailed Modi as “a visionary prime minister” when he made an advance visit to India.

As he issued his invitation to Obama, Modi said on Twitter that he was going “to have a friend over”.

While there is little doubt that diplomatic imperatives and a mutual desire to counterbalance China’s rise partly explains their desire to find common ground, observers say it goes further than that.

Both men entered office under a huge weight of expectation, with grand plans to deliver radical reform that would underline the sense of a bold break from the established order.

“In their first conversation after Prime Minister Modi’s election, I think they noted some similarities in terms of how their campaigns kind of changed the way in which politics was practised in their respective countries,” said Rhodes.

While Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush was the son of a president, Modi’s main election rival was Rahul Gandhi, whose father and grandmother had both been Indian prime ministers.

And as the son of a tea vendor, Modi’s back story carried echoes of Obama’s inspirational rise to become the first black US president.

In an interview published on the eve of his arrival in Delhi, Obama said Modi’s “remarkable life story… is a reflection of the determination of the Indian people to succeed”.

“They both come from similar origins. One represents the American dream and the other represents the Indian dream,” KG Suresh, senior fellow at the Delhi-based Vivekananda International Foundation think-tank, told AFP.

“Both represent a certain vision, theme and direction of where they want to take their country. “While Obama may come from the left of US politics and Modi from the right of India’s political spectrum, Suresh said they shared basic common goals.

“Modi knows that for the vast socio-economic changes including his ambitious Make in India campaign, he needs American investments and technology, in sectors like defence, energy, nuclear and national security,” Suresh said.

“President Obama obviously wants to revive (the) American economy, create jobs and for him India is a great market that offers him an opportunity to fulfil the aspirations of his own people.

“And America certainly needs an emerging India as a key partner in the Asia-Pacific, particularly in the light of China’s emergence. “China’s President Xi Jinping did get an invite from Modi before Obama, and even shared dinner with his host on the Indian premier’s 64th birthday.

But according to Indian newspaper reports, Obama will get even more favoured treatment by becoming the first leader to be entertained to an intimate dinner at Modi’s home.


  1. Oh yes you can see by the reaction on Obummer's face of what he thinks of this peasant hate stirrer Modi.

  2. These are gestures and should be seen in that context. President Ayub was received by Kennedy on his first visit against all protocols.

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