TIME Viewpoint

Modi’s Operandi

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Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hugs Modi upon his arrival at the state guesthouse in the Japanese city of Kyoto TORU YAMANAKA—AFP/Getty Images

Self-interest is at the heart of India’s new foreign policy—and that’s good for relations with the U.S.

When Barack Obama received an Indian Prime Minister at the White House for the first time in 2009, the greatest excitement came not from any chemistry between him and Manmohan Singh, nor even from the unstinting (if dutiful) affirmation of values shared by their two great nations.

The buzz came, instead, from an audacious couple who hoodwinked the world’s tightest security cordon and gate-crashed the state banquet. Tareq and Michaele Salahi—remember them?—upstaged the official guests in the popular imagination. Somehow, it seemed entirely fitting that a Gatsbyesque businessman from Virginia and his gaudy blond wife should have saved us all from the ineffable dullness of Manmohan Singh.

Singh’s successor, by contrast, is not a dull man, nor one easily upstaged. When Narendra Modi visits the White House for the first time on Sept. 29, he will be a powerful magnet for attention. His is an awkward, even embarrassing, visit: the U.S. State Department had placed him on a visa blacklist in 2005, until his party waltzed to victory in India’s elections in May. The reason? Disquiet over his alleged role in the anti-Muslim riots that racked Gujarat in 2002, when he was chief minister of the western Indian state. And there was likely a belief in the State Department that it was safe to deny Modi entry since he would surely never amount to anything more than a regional politician.

Those riots and that visa denial are now history, for better or worse. Modi took India by storm, and in the months since he became Prime Minister, he has gone about reconstructing India’s foreign policy. Some would say he is revolutionizing it.

India was, until recently, a country with a rudderless foreign policy, rooted more in airy-fairy internationalism than in hard­headed national interest. A continuing fidelity to nonalignment—which, in effect, is simply nonalignment with the West—lived on in the country’s Foreign Ministry. For a while, when President George W. Bush was in the White House, India teetered on the edge of an alliance with Washington.

Certainly, Bush did everything he could to win India over to his side, concluding a nuclear deal with New Delhi that would have been unthinkable under any previous President. But the alliance has failed to mature under Obama, who, to be fair, has had little time for India, given the many crises that have bedeviled his Administration.

Under Modi, though, India is charting a policy of robust national self-interest, with Japan emerging as its central foreign partner. The new Prime Minister traveled to Tokyo in late August and pulled off one of the most successful state visits in Indian history. And on Sept. 17, Chinese President Xi Jinping came calling, vying for the favorable attention that Modi had just bestowed on Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe.

Japan and China are courting India with gusto. Tokyo, which feels cut adrift by an underconfident Washington, wants a partnership with India to keep China at bay. Beijing, disconcerted by a galloping Indo-Japanese alliance, wants to prise New Delhi away from Tokyo. India continues to be deeply suspicious of an expansionist China, even as it covets its investment. Just one day after Xi set foot in India, 1,000 Chinese soldiers made a distinctly undiplomatic incursion into Indian territory.

In India, meanwhile, illusions about a meaningful alliance with the U.S. have melted away. This is healthy for Indo-U.S. ties, which are better embedded in pragmatism than wishful thinking. It takes diplomatic pressure off the U.S., for whom forging a formal relationship with India is always going to be tricky. An India strengthened on its own terms is likely to be a better partner for the U.S. than a thin-skinned India that plays perpetual second fiddle, always sensitive to slights and disappointment.

The Modi who will visit Obama on Sept. 29 comes not as a supplicant. Obama’s focus is now firmly on the terrorists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Middle East, not on the subcontinent. In any case, Modi’s primary interlocutors in the U.S. are not in the White House. They are in the American private sector. All he needs is a firm handshake from Obama. Oh, and that fulsome affirmation of shared democratic values.

Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution

TIME India

Why Modi Is No Erdogan

India's new PM has much in common with the Turkish leader, but the analogy only goes so far

As Narendra Modi stormed into the consciousness of the world beyond India, analysts everywhere scrambled to interpret him for their readers and viewers. The easiest interpretive reflex of all is the comparison; and so it was inevitable that Modi, India’s new Prime Minister, came to be likened to Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Ariel Sharon, Shinzo Abe and Deng Xiaoping. Even Vladimir Putin was invoked as a comparator, notwithstanding the fact that there is nothing in Modi’s record or rhetoric to suggest that he will seek to annex the land of a neighboring country—or pose bare-chested atop a horse.

The analogy that stood out as most informative—and least rose-tinted—was the likening of Modi to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Islamist-democrat Prime Minister. At first glance, the parallels between Modi and Erdogan seem striking: Both men head parties that have expressed disdain for their countries’ secular traditions, instead channeling the religious aspirations of a large section of the citizenry. Both men dominate their parties, there being in neither the Indian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nor the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) a politician of stature who can mount a credible leadership challenge. Modi and Erdogan profess to be free-marketers, and yet they face accusations of crony capitalism. Both men are known to be reluctant delegators of authority, centralizing policymaking and execution. And both draw accusations of high-handedness from their critics, evoking in those who would oppose them a fear that they cannot be trusted with a pluralist democracy.

Yet it would be a mistake to be seduced by this comparison into concluding that Modi is India’s Erdogan. There are as many differences between the two as there are similarities. More important, the differences between the politics and institutions of India and Turkey are so great as to render the resemblance between the two men entirely superficial.

Erdogan came to power in 2003, bristling to undo the Kemalist state. From the beginning, he sought to roll back laws and practices that barred Turkey’s overwhelmingly Muslim population from being as Muslim in public as they wished to be. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk espoused a radical secularism that suppressed much of the culture of ordinary Turks, and Erdogan’s project was a counterrevolution against the founder of the Turkish republic.

Modi’s cultural revolution does not call for a remaking of the Indian state. India’s constitutional secularism, unlike Turkey’s, is intended to be benign, allowing the practices of all religions to coexist in the public sphere. India’s Hindu believers, unlike Turkey’s devout Muslims, have never had to fight the state to express themselves in public. Yes, Indian secular elites have cultivated a disdain for the Hindu heartland, but there has been no legal curb on Hinduism in India, no ramming of secularism down Hindu (or, for that matter, Muslim) throats.

Indian democracy is more accomplished, and self-assured, than Turkey’s. Erdogan is an autocratic Prime Minister in a rudderless democracy whose institutional checks are feeble. Modi may dominate the BJP, but Erdogan incarnates the AKP. India’s federal structure ensures that there are limits on even the most autocratic Prime Minister. You want to build a state-of-the-art highway between Delhi and Mumbai? You have to negotiate passage with the chief ministers of at least four states. Erdogan, by contrast, can do as he pleases.

There is also the difference in international stature between India and Turkey that will bring about its own curbs on Modi. Turkey is a middling regional power that has, under Erdogan, squandered every diplomatic chip that Ankara once possessed. Even as he has nurtured economic growth, Erdogan has presided over the global shrinking of Turkey.

Modi, on the other hand, seeks the aggrandizing of India, the building of new relations, not the dismantling of old ones. And whatever his likeness to Erdogan, there is one crucial difference: he is a man of almost disconcerting discipline. It is inconceivable that he would wade into a crowd, fists flailing, shrieking “spawn of Israel” at a protester, as Erdogan did recently.

There is nothing Modi measures so carefully as his own words.

Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution

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