The list of writers of Time‘s annual 100 Most Influential People feature is usually as star-studded as the list itself. This year, you can read Elon Musk on Kanye West, or Ukrainian Prime Minister Petro Poroshenko on Angela Merkel. But even in this pantheon, one byline-subject combination stands out, and that’s Barack Obama on Narendra Modi.
In his three short paragraphs under the line “India’s reformer-in chief,” the U.S. President is awfully nice to the Indian PM:
As a boy, Narendra Modi helped his father sell tea to support their family. Today, he’s the leader of the world’s largest democracy, and his life story—from poverty to Prime Minister—reflects the dynamism and potential of India’s rise.
Determined to help more Indians follow in his path, he’s laid out an ambitious vision to reduce extreme poverty, improve education, empower women and girls and unleash India’s true economic potential while confronting climate change. Like India, he transcends the ancient and the modern—a devotee of yoga who connects with Indian citizens on Twitter and imagines a “digital India.”
When he came to Washington, Narendra and I visited the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We reflected on the teachings of King and Gandhi and how the diversity of backgrounds and faiths in our countries is a strength we have to protect. Prime Minister Modi recognizes that more than 1 billion Indians living and succeeding together can be an inspiring model for the world.
Since the outset of his presidency, Obama has made reconciling Muslims and non-Muslims a prevailing rhetorical theme and policy objective. That makes this recent bit of fulsome praise for Modi ring a little hollow, since the the Indian PM and his nationalist BJP party are not exactly heroes among India’s Muslims—or other minorities, for that matter. In domestic politics, Modi’s image as a Hindu nationalist is at least as important as his reform and trade liberalization agenda, and its one of the key features that distinguishes him and his party from the long-dominant, secular National Congress Party. Even now, the Hindu nationalist agenda guides many of his policies, like a recent decision about the resettlement of Hindus in Kashmir, the divided and disputed province on India’s border with Pakistan.
Weird optics of this particular case aside, it’s good to see President Obama being nice to the leaders of important U.S. allies—something he doesn’t always seem keen to do. Realism about a rising China is one of the issues on which this Administration is closest to the evolving American consensus on foreign policy, and the trend of warming relations with India is one of the elements of Obama’s foreign policy that is most likely to outlast him.
Of course, when this President has picked a foreign leader to court (cough Erdogan) it hasn’t always worked out that well. Let’s hope that Obama’s praise doesn’t happen to coincide with the reawakening of authoritarian tendencies in Modi as well.