- Gateway House - https://www.gatewayhouse.in -

Obama-Modi: parallel paths

At the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, the world’s top corporate and political leaders are gathering to deduce ‘What will the new global context mean?”

To many, the new global context will refer to the turning point of Charlie Hebdo. For others it will be the ascent of the mighty United States in a low-oil price, high tech world. To most, India will be on the sidelines, seen as a ‘country struggling to enact economic reform.’

To many in India, the context of Davos itself is becoming less relevant. The “doesn’t-matter Davos” is sandwiched between two major events in India. The first, was the just-concluded the Vibrant Gujarat conference held in Ahmedabad. The hard-working global elite were there—John Kerry, several Australian and Canadian ministers, the UN secretary general, Danish-Dutch-Singaporean-Bhutanese heads of state, the Japanese, delegations from 150 countries. Eight foreign countries were partners at the summit—the U.S., the UK, Japan, Canada, Netherlands, Singapore, Australia, and South Africa. In short, it was a domestic version of Davos, with everyone focused on one topic: investing in India.

Apparently $400 billion in investment was pledged in Gujarat. Even if 50% materializes, it will show investor confidence in an India which can perhaps forge a functional future and create a new global context. A context led by India which, in keeping with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fondness for catch-phrases and alliteration, can build on ‘soft’ strengths—democracy, demography, diversity, development—and work on a new economic philosophy of sustainable economics, with products and services that are affordable, accessible and appropriate.

India is hosting another major event this weekend: the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to the country’s Republic Day celebrations. The global elite at Davos would have done better to witness this actual transformation in the global context: the meeting of two similar yet dissimilar men who, through understanding and collaboration, are seeking to change the course of their countries’ futures.

Many comparisons are being made between Modi and Obama—both came into power on a wave, and tried to do the impossible against all odds. Obama to reverse America’s global cowboy reputation and to extract an economy on the rails; Modi to bring his despondent party to power, extract an economy on the rails and deliver to a youthful population their aspirations and dreams for a better life.

Both were unknowns in their capitals—Modi came directly from Gujarat, and Obama from Illinois. Both are brilliant orators. Both made their opponents their foreign ministers—Modi did with Sushma Swaraj what Obama did with Hillary Clinton. Both came from socially marginalised backgrounds—Obama is half black, and the first black president of the U.S., Modi came from the backward castes and sold tea at the railway station. Their elections empowered their constituencies. In September, when Modi visited Washington DC, the two bonded over a Mahatma Gandhi connection—Martin Luther King’s statue in the U.S. capital.

Now Obama is nearing the end of his term, and Modi is at the beginning of his. They will meet again this week, in foggy Delhi, at India’s most dramatic annual display of machismo—the Republic Day parade. What notes will they exchange with each other? What advice will a seasoned Obama give Modi, and which of his dreams will Modi confide in Obama?

The theatrics and substance of this meeting is important to both heads of state. Obama’s had many successes, the most important is bringing the U.S. economy to a nearly 5% growth rate. But his opponents are on the rampage, and his ratings at home have dropped, particularly on foreign policy. He will want to leave office with some wins, and India can be top of that list.

In contrast, Narendra Modi has been in power for just seven months now. Six of those were spent in pursuing an economic diplomacy agenda, and some global signalling. One, that India intended to be back in global play; two, that Mr. Modi the pariah has been rehabilitated, accepted, given accolades – and been generous and forgiving especially to Washington which had long denied him a visa to visit. Three, that India needs capital and investment, and Mr. Modi will be the personal guarantor. Four, that the neighbourhood matters most. Without a safe, secure and prosperous South Asia, India doesn’t stand a chance. And if any neighbour plays treachery, we will now respond in kind.

In this regard, the BJP’s series of victories in the state elections during the last seven months is significant economically and strategically. Modi has focused on winning states on India’s borders, creating what Delhi Twitter commentator LutyensMasala  called a ‘saffron string of pearls’ from Rajasthan to Bengal, to ensure security. He is also desperately seeking investment in those states, for jobs and high growth.

This will mean making and extracting concessions to the U.S.—making concessions on climate change and energy cooperation, and extracting cooperation from Obama on the issue of Pakistan, where the US still has considerable influence.

So Modi and Obama have some serious bilateral deals to seal, if they want to create, together, the new global context. January 26 will show whether they can.

Manjeet Kripalani is the co-founder and executive director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai.

This blog was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact outreach@gatewayhouse.in.

© Copyright 2015 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited