The Obama Administration is doing something it doesn’t usually do. As the president gets ready to fly to India they are stressing the bond he shares with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
This was how one of the president’s top adviser’s Ben Rhodes recently described it to reporters:
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“And then during the prime minister’s visit here I think they struck up a very good chemistry. They had a long discussion over dinner and then the next day, in addition to the meeting, I think it was very meaningful for the president to be able to visit the Martin Luther King memorial with Prime Minister Modi, given the links between Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. That speaks to kind of a shared sense of struggle and shared values between the United States and India, and they were able to discuss those issues. So they struck up a good chemistry.”
It’s hard to think of the last time an administration official even said the word chemistry.
They don’t tend to put much focus on the president’s personal relationships, often implying that just doesn’t matter. So why are they doing it?
It could be that the two leaders really like each other. Since I’m paid to be sceptical, let’s look at it another way. The US president needs to cement his legacy, and it’s clear he wants trade to be a major part of that. We know he’s had his eye on India from the beginning of his first term. Don’t forget, the very first state dinner was hosted to honour the last Indian prime minister. They don’t just throw a dart at a map on the wall to pick who gets the honour. He wants a foot hold in India because it could really pay off for American companies. The problem for Obama is that since that lovely evening six years ago, not much has happened. The countries are doing more trade, but that has mostly benefited India.
So now there is Prime Minister Modi and his promise to open up India for foreign investment. He took the highly unusual step of asking President Obama to be his guest as his country celebrates Republic Day. White House officials said they were surprised the offer was made and they seemed almost giddy about it. The prime minister obviously can benefit if Americans invest more in his country, especially when it comes to infrastructure spending and green technology. He’s also a man who spent a good part of the last decade being shunned by the West.
Let’s not forget he wasn’t even allowed in the United States because he was in charge of Gujarat during religious riots. That will seem like a very long time ago as he and President Obama take part in the parade to mark the special occasion.
This will be a trip of firsts. The first time a US president has visited India twice while in office. It will be the first time President Obama takes part in a foreign National Day celebration and the first time India has asked a US president to do so.
White House officials are going out of their way to say this isn’t a slight against Pakistan, and the president did call the Pakistani prime minister the day the India trip was announced to make sure he sent that message personally. There have been US presidents who have stopped by Pakistan after a stop in India. There has been no indication that will happen this time, but that would be another first for the president who has not set foot in Pakistan during his time in office.