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Mitali Saran: The second coming

They had heard tell of his advent. And lo, there was a great rumbling in the sky, and politicians and economists told of a bright light over a mangy land, and, thus, it was that Air Force One landed at the technical area in Palam Airport in Delhi, and President Obama and Prime Minister Modi fell into each other’s arms; yea, and they bear-hugged. And it was good. Though, praise be, while nobody else can really know what goes on between two people, verily to the outside eye their love looked, as love often is, better for one than for the other.

There’s no question that US President Barack Obama’s second visit to India was a positive step that opens up interesting possibilities, and that Narendra Modi deserves much credit for making it happen. But the hype around the mutual warmth on display reached delusional levels. If there is, as news channels would have you believe, a thousand hours’ worth of airtime in “the optics” and “the chemistry” and the “body language”, this is what it looked like: Mr Modi made what looked like an overly big show of how close he and Mr Obama were, while Mr Obama maintained a friendly but conspicuously correct ground. That is the dreamy personal chemistry of which asymmetrical relationships are made.

Mr Modi wore stars in his eyes and stripes on his suit, and kept calling the US President “Barack”, but every adoring glance that he threw Mr Obama’s way was met with a “Prime Minister Modi” or “Mr Modi”. Maybe the name “Narendra” is just harder to pronounce – Mr Obama is no pronunciation ace, ending his address at Siri Fort Auditorium on Tuesday with a ringing “Jai Hund!” before correcting himself. But not only did Mr Obama refrain from calling the prime minister by his first name, he also emphasised, at the joint statement and press conference on Sunday, that their friendship (which Mr Modi seeks to project as personal) is a reflection of the warmth and affection between the Indian and American peoples.

In other words, Mr Modi was that guy who steps one pace too far into someone else’s personal space while talking and, as the other person politely but firmly steps back, enthusiastically keeps stepping forward. It’s called refusing to take the hint. All of us have been there in some context or another, and cringe to remember it. If Mr Modi represents the country, then we should all be embarrassed about our failure to notice Mr Obama’s failure to reciprocate our first-name familiarity, and to consequently adjust our behaviour.

However, what the prime minister was representing seemed at best ambiguous. A suit embroidered all over with the word “India” would have said “We are feeling on the acceptable, though still wildly inappropriate, side of juvenile today”; but a suit emblazoned as it was with the words “Narendra Damodardas Modi” over and over and over again just says: “I have no idea how crass it is for me to dress like a plutocrat welcoming you to a party on my personal yacht, rather than like the prime sevak I claimed I would be of a complicated democracy in which hundreds of millions go to bed hungry.” At the Republic Day parade Mr Modi broke protocol to sit next to Mr Obama (who should have been seated between President Pranab Mukherjee and Vice-President Hamid Ansari), like the newly arrived kid who will do just about anything to be seen with the cool kid.

Mr Obama seemed perfectly clear about what he was doing in India – looking to open up markets for American companies; establishing an economic and political partnership that serves his country’s larger geopolitical aims; and generally being the democratic statesman rapping Mr Modi on the knuckles on religious discrimination, mostly because capital likes stable markets in stable societies. When he ran into the telephone booth on board Air Force One, transformed into Realist Politician Man, and went off to Saudi Arabia to make nice with the theocratic misogynistic tyrants who have the oil, he was doing the same. All of it was clearly in the interests of America.

Mr Modi seemed keener just to project himself as in with the big guys. That’s fine, but it’s probably a very good thing that nothing actually got signed. There’s a reason they say that you shouldn’t make decisions in the chemistry-addled first flush of love; it’s only when the infatuation dies down that you realise that the other guy is trying to move into your flat and replace all your furniture, and has an annoying chewing-gum habit.


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