On April 16th this year, TIME Magazine released its annual “TIME 100” list — a list of people from around the world that TIME considers “most influential.” Split up into four broad categories — “Titans”, “Pioneers”, “Artists”, and “Leaders”, the list features a short run-down of its candidates, each penned by somebody equally noteworthy.
It might not be surprising to hear then that Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, was included under the category of “Leaders” in this year’s list. This is not, however, the first time Modi has been featured. He previously made the list in 2014, when he was on the verge of being elected India’s Prime Minister after his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ousted the long-ruling Congress party in what many Indians consider to be the most decisive general election in decades. And despite his seemingly “Hindu-nationalist” agenda, he had managed to win over young Indians with his economic arguments and his emphasis on jobs.
Given Modi’s “right-wing” nature then, it might come as a shock that his testimonial this year was written by none other than President Barack Obama, the self-proclaimed (albeit jokingly) “pot-smoking socialist.” Obama’s left-leaning nature is no secret and has often been the subject of scrutiny amongst Republicans and the media. Arguably his biggest achievement was to facilitate access to universal healthcare through “Obamacare.” Obama’s other policies speak volumes of his political character: a redistributionist who favors progressive taxation for and inheritance taxes on the rich, supports state-sponsored welfare programs, and advocates for more stringent environmental laws. And these are just a few examples of his “liberal agenda.”
His Indian counter-part, on the other hand, believes in “firm governance” and a “strong government” which he himself embodies in his autocratic style of leadership. His commitment to militarism is highlighted by the fact that ever since Modi has come to power, India has increased its military defense budget by 11% (to $40 billion). His aggressive stance towards Pakistan is a curious mix of clever foreign policy and unbridled nationalism. But his commitment to building infrastructure to facilitate India’s urbanization and industrialization is the real reason why millions of Indian voted for the BJP. His election campaign was based in part on his pro-economic growth agenda but equally by his desire to eliminate bureaucracy and the crippling inefficiency of the judiciary.
His election, however, was not free from controversy. There were fears that a Modi government would pervert Indian secularism with its apparent “Hindutva” (Hindu nationalist) agenda. (This suspicion was largely based off of Modi’s failure, as then-Chief Minister of Gujarat, to contain the 2002 riots that quickly disintegrated into Hindu-Muslim communal violence.) But this has not quite been the case. Perhaps Modi’s most controversial, “pro-Hindu” act to date is the recent ban on beef in the state of Maharashtra, where the Modi-led BJP was recently elected to state government. To what extent Modi influenced the decision, however, is questionable.
But for those familiar with their past interactions, Obama’s testimonial is just another example of the mutual admiration and respect that the Modi-Obama relationship is built on. Despite occupying different ends on the political, “left-right” spectrum, the two share remarkable similarities. Both are excellent orators, for whom rhetoric formed an important part of the election campaign. Both placed incredible emphasis on the middle class in their campaign commitments. And both succeeded governments that were largely viewed by the public as having “failed.”
Obama’s relationship with Modi, it seems, is a mix of a personal friendship and a strategic alliance. Obama lauds Modi in his testimonial for his rise from “rags-to-riches” — as a boy selling tea on train platforms to Prime Minister — something exceptionally characteristic of the “American Dream.” Modi’s rise to power is also eerily reminiscent of Obama’s in that both were considered outsiders: Obama as an African-American presidential candidate and Modi as a regional politician with unabashed Hindutva leanings. Perhaps Obama was drawn to Modi’s characteristically strong and charismatic presence?
But Obama’s intentions may not be all that pure. In 2015, US-imported goods from India amounted to $11 billion. India is currently the US’s 11th largest trade partner but with India’s rapid economic growth on the horizon, trade between the two is expected to steadily rise. Moreover, India is expected to be the world’s largest economy (in terms of purchasing power parity) by 2050. To forge a rapport with India and its new government would go a long way economically. Obama’s admiration for India, the world’s largest democracy, represents a continued belief in the “American” values of freedom and free speech. There is also the view that India could serve as an essential ally against both China and Russia (the latter of which India was closely aligned with during the Cold War). But perhaps no matter how you try to rationalize the Obama-Modi relationship, the two still appear to be the unlikeliest of friends.