US president Barack Obama spoke with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday as part of farewell calls to world leaders he worked with closely over his years in the White House.
Obama and Modi had developed what officials on both sides concurred a good working relationship. They spoke often regularly — touch base, as the White House said once — and met frequently, over seven times, according to the last count.
On the farewell call, the White House said in a statement, Obama and Modi reviewed “joint efforts of cooperation including defense, civil nuclear energy, and enhanced people-to-people ties”
The president spoke of his visit as chief guest at the India’s Republican Day celebrations in 2015 — when his chewing gum made as much news as his presence — and extended congratulations ahead of India’s upcoming 68th Republic Day anniversary.
“Both leaders discussed the progress they have made on shared economic and security priorities, including recognition of India as a Major Defense Partner of the United States and addressing the global challenge of climate change,” the White House added.
From their first meeting in September 2014, at the White House, when Obama greeted Modi in Gujarati, they developed an easy working relationship, calling each other by their first names in public, a routine western practice but rare for an Indian leader.
Obama was, in fact, among the first word leaders to call Modi on his election in 2014, when he invited the Prime Minister to visit the US, ending in one stroke weeks of speculation about how Modi will travel to US, having being denied a visa in 2005.
They would go on to meet frequently, almost twice or more on the sidelines of world meetings of the US and multilateral meetings, with three bilateral state visits, two in Washington DC — 2014 and 2016 — and one in New Delhi, 2015.
Before their September 2014 meeting, the two leaders co-authored an op-ed in The Washington Post laying out their joint vision for the relationship. It was titled, “Chalen Saath Saath: Forward, we go together”.
The joint statement issued after their meeting the next day covered all the usual points the two sides like to see, and went beyond. It called, for the first time, for all parties in the South China Sea dispute to resolve their differences amicably.
That led to speculation in the next few months, of the two countries considering joint naval patrol in those waters in an obvious challenge to the Chinese, who have litigated their case in the region with unbridled aggression.
Modi and Obama used social media, Twitter actually, their favoured platform for public communication before Donald Trump discovered it, to announce the US president will be chief guest at the Republic Day parade in 2015.
That was a first for a US president, and a double first, as it was the first time a sitting president was to visit India twice while still in office; the significance of which was not lost on either party and the world, signaling a rare closeness.
But Obama used the visit to remind his host of the importance of tolerance. “India will succeed as long as it’s not splintered along religious lines…nowhere is it more important to uphold religious freedom than in India,” he said in a speech.
As a stung Indian political establishment pushed back, possibly behind closed doors, the White House sought to tone down the president’s remarks telling Indian reporters in DC he had only invoked “shared values” and that it had been “misconstrued”.
That may have sounded reassuring to Indian leaders, but Obama doubled down on his remarks just a few days later, saying “acts of intolerance (in the last year in India) … would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.”
Obama also pushed India on climate change, to accept responsibility as a major polluter, as had China, and undertake to do more to cut emissions tweaking its longstanding position that the developed world be made to shoulder the burden mostly.
Eventually, the two were seen taking the lead with China’s Xi Jinping in forging a historic global compact in 2015-end, which Trump has threatened to tear up. Both India and the US have ratified the accord along with many other countries.