Biden-Modi relationship built around mutual admiration of disjointed pasts, pragmatic needs

WASHINGTON (AP) — No one would mistake them for best friends.

But US President Joe Biden, blue-collar son Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who rose from the son of the tea seller to the prime minister, have developed a relationship based on mutual respect for their messy backgrounds and pragmatism about the common challenges facing their two countries.

Biden welcomes Modi for a state visit this week as he seeks to strengthen relations with the leader of a nation of 1.4 billion people the US administration considers a pivotal force in Asia for decades coming. The visit to much fanfare will mark the two leaders’ 10th in-person or virtual engagement since Biden became president in 2021. They are expected to meet again in September in India at the Group of 20 summit.

The US-India relationship is complicated. There are deep differences over Russia’s war in Ukraine and India’s human rights record.

But the frequent engagement between the leaders is seen by both sides as reflecting that, whatever their personal dynamics, Biden and Modi view the US-India relationship as pivotal in the face of an increasingly assertive China and the monumental challenges posed by climate change. , artificial intelligence, supply chain resilience and other issues.

“They get along well personally, but more importantly, I think the two realize that it is in the interests of the United States and India to move the relationship forward,” said Arun K. Singh, former Indian Ambassador to the United States. Modi, there is a convergence of interests and you can see that both leaders are personally invested in moving the ties forward.

Biden and Modi did not develop the kind of close bond that former President Barack Obama had with Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh.

Singh was the first leader Obama honored with a state visit during his presidency. In his post-presidency memoir, “A Promised Land,” Obama praised the former Indian prime minister as “wise, thoughtful, and scrupulously honest” and credited Singh as “the chief architect of economic transformation. from India”.

Nor will Biden and Modi headline noisy stadium rallies like Modi and former President Donald Trump did together in Houston and Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Trump compared Modi to Elvis Presley for his star appeal at a joint rally in Houston in September 2019 that drew around 50,000 people to NRG Stadium. The two leaders more than doubled that crowd about five months later with a massive rally at a cricket stadium. In Ahmedabad, Modi hailed Trump as a “unique friend of India” and Trump called Modi an “outstanding leader”.

Even without large rallies, however, the Biden White House says there is still plenty of evidence that US-India relations are growing.

Trade between the United States and India in 2022 hit a record $191 billion. Through the Quad, an international partnership between the United States, Australia, India and Japan, countries launched a plan in 2021 to donate 1.2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the Indo-Pacific.

Earlier this year, the two countries launched the Critical and Emerging Technologies Initiative, which paves the way for collaboration on semiconductor production, the development of artificial intelligence and a relaxation of control rules. exports that could allow US defense contractors to transfer critical technologies. US-based General Electric is now awaiting administration approval to produce jet engines in India.

“I think with Biden, you don’t have those explosive hot moments,” said Richard Rossow, chair of Indian-American policy studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But the tenor and pace of the engagement has escalated a bit.”

The two leaders — Biden, a center-left Democrat, and Modi, a Hindu nationalist who heads the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party — aren’t exactly cut from the same political fabric. Yet the leaders connected during each other’s relatively humble beginnings, according to a senior Biden administration official.

The prime minister was the third of six children born to Damodardas Modi, who ran a small tea shop at the local railway station in the small town of Vadnagar in the western state of Gujarat. The family was struggling to make ends meet, which meant Modi had to help his father run the shop. Biden, who has been elected more than half his life, often speaks of his father’s own struggles to maintain a foothold in the middle class as shaping his own worldview.

Both executives seem to enjoy each other’s “scrappiness”, said the official who was not authorized to comment and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Biden-Modi relationship is not without tension. Last year, Biden publicly called India’s response to the war in Ukraine “fragile”. India abstained from voting on UN resolutions condemning Russia and refused to join the global coalition against Russia. Since the start of the war, the Modi government has also significantly increased its purchases of Russian oil.

Human rights groups and press freedom advocates are also pressuring Biden to publicly address Modi’s concerns about democratic backsliding in his country. Modi has been criticized for legislation amending the country’s citizenship law which fast-tracks the naturalization of some migrants but excludes Muslims, an increase in violence against Muslims and other religious minorities by Hindu nationalists and the recent condemnation of the India’s main opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, for mocking Modi’s last name.

But ahead of the trip, Biden administration officials sought to focus on countries’ “shared values” and India’s critical role in finding solutions to some of the biggest problems facing the world.

“If you want to make a dent in the energy transition, you can’t even do it without India,” Amos Hochstein, a senior White House adviser, told U.S. and Indian business leaders at a meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce ahead of Modi. visit. Hochstein added: “I think bringing Prime Minister Modi and President Biden together is a big ambition.”

Biden and Modi had their lighter moments.

When Modi came to Washington in September 2021, he brought with him documents of people with the surname “Biden” in India.

“Are we related? Biden asked. Modi without missing a beat jokingly replied, “Yes.”

At the Group of Seven summit in Japan last month, Modi greeted Biden as he wrapped him in a tight hug that grabbed headlines in India.

Nirupama Rao, India’s former ambassador to the United States and China, says Modi has an “aptitude and talent” for soft skills in politics. It’s something the Indian prime minister and Biden share, she said.

“This state visit, I think, provides an opportunity and maybe provides the backdrop for Mr. Modi to develop a very good understanding with President Biden and vice versa for Mr. Biden,” Rao said.


Pathi reported from New Delhi. AP reporter Tracy Brown in Washington contributed to this report.

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