Frenemies

05.17.14

Mr. Politically Correct Obama, Meet Your Opposite, India’s Mr. Modi

India’s new prime minister has been barred from the U.S. because of alleged links to a religious massacre, but that’s not the only reason a meeting with the president will be difficult.

NEW DELHI, India -- When Barack Obama was made aware that Narendra Modi would be India’s next prime minister, the chances are that he moaned softly to himself…and cringed. 

India’s voters had brought to power a man who is not permitted to visit the United States, having been denied a U.S. visa in 2005 on account of a State Department determination that he had violated religious freedoms in the Indian state of Gujarat. (Some 2,000 Muslims had died in riots that scarred Gujarat in 2002. Modi was the state’s chief minister at the time, and his critics hold him responsible for the deaths.) The visa ban was still in place when Modi was nominated last September to lead theBharatiya Janata [Indian People’s] Party into the elections; and most awkwardly for Obama, the ban was still technically in place on the day of his victory. American diplomacy has been decidedly maladroit.

As if jolted awake by the obtuseness of his own State Department, Obama invited Modi to visit the U.S. “at a mutually agreeable time” when he called the Indian on Saturday to congratulate him on his triumph.

A meeting between the two men, when it occurs, could be fascinating to observe. Obama and Modi are from two different planets, and each, in his heart, is likely to have vigorous contempt for the other. The former is an exquisitely calibrated product of American liberalism, ever attentive to such notions as “inclusiveness.” He is the acme of political correctness (notwithstanding the odd drone directed at “AfPak”). Modi, by contrast, is a blunt-spoken nationalist, opposed to welfare, and to the “appeasement” of minorities.

Obama and Modi are from two different planets, and each, in his heart, is likely to have a hearty contempt for the other.

Unlike Obama, who can scarcely bring himself to embrace the notion of American Exceptionalism, Modi is an Indian exceptionalist—although not in the manner of Indian leaders who have preceded him. Traditional Indian foreign policy, mired in a reflexive, postcolonial non-alignment, has always held that India has moral lessons to impart to other nations. Its international posturing has had a preachy (and frequently hypocritical) quality to it, of the sort that can get on the nerves of American presidents and other Western leaders. Modi’s foreign projection is likely to be more assertive: It is plain that he envisions a strong India that is accorded respect by other nations, and that also pulls its weight in the world.

This assertiveness comes with its dangers, of course. Will he show restraint in the event of a cross-border terrorist incursion into India from Pakistan? Will he provoke a crisis with neighboring Bangladesh—that rarest of societies, a secular Muslim-majority democracy—by cracking down hard on the movement of its migrants into India? How will he react to Chinese provocations, which are sure to come, given Beijing’s increasingly bellicose insistence on its territorial claims on land and at sea? 

The foreign leader he will bond with best is unlikely to be Obama, an American president who has none of the instinctive feel for India, or for the enormous potential of a U.S.-India alliance, that George W. Bush had.  The withering of that alliance has been one of the bleak, untold stories of Obama’s period in office, and one senses that India will have to wait for Hillary Clinton to reach the White House before the Delhi-Washington relationship blossoms again. 

Modi’s keenest ally—potentially his BFF—is likely to be Japan’s Shinzo Abe, who was one of the first to send his congratulations to the Indian politician when it became apparent that he would be the next prime minister. Abe and Modi are, in many ways, made for each other: Ardent nationalists yearning to break free from their respective nations’ patterns of international passivity, they both face the terrifying challenge of a China that plays by its own unyielding rules, a maximalist hegemon which has the economic and military heft to dispense with diplomacy as the primary means of dispute resolution.

Shinzo Abe, disconcerted by the ebbing of American influence—and by the reluctance of Obama to project (much less deploy) American power in the service of its allies—has every reason to cultivate Narendra Modi. Japan has a lot to offer India in the renovation of the latter’s appalling infrastructure, and Tokyo is raring to ramp up the rate of its business with India. India is a fellow democracy, and, like Japan, feels acutely vulnerable to Chinese territorial and economic expansionism. By linking up, Tokyo and Delhi can bolster each others’ defense, each others’ confidence, and give heart also to the other nations in the region that feel the burn of the Chinese nationalist furnace.

Although national security is a primary concern for Modi, his foreign policy is likely to be carried on the back of his economic policy. He is aware that India can only be consequential if its economy is growing: not only would growth enable India to afford the military hardware it needs to match China; it would also ensure that the widest possible range of international business interests come to have a stake in India. As the case of China shows, a sufficiently extensive foreign business presence confers on the host country a high degree of immunity from foreign criticism and sanctions. So the American leaders with whom Modi will have the most direct dialogue will not be in Washington but on Wall Street, and in the American corporate sector. And he will not need a visa to see them; they will come to Delhi.  

Modi’s victory will also energize the large and wealthy Indian diaspora in the United States. He has many supporters in that country, and it was an invitation from an Indian-American business group that gave rise to the need for a visa in 2005. Modi, one suspects, will be in no hurry to visit the land that considered him unfit for entry only a short while ago. And Obama, one also suspects, is in no great hurry to see Modi, in spite of his pro forma invitation on Saturday. It’s not that the twain will never meet: it’s that they don’t particularly relish the prospect of ever doing so.