Voice

Modbama: A Budding Bromance

As the American and Indian publics warm toward one another, a head of state affinity may lead to stronger ties.

US President Barack Obama (2L) waves to spectators as he leaves with US First Lady Michelle Obama (2R), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Indian President Pranab Mukherjee (R) after attending India's Republic Day parade on Rajpath in New Delhi on January 26, 2015. Rain failed to dampen spirits at India's Republic Day parade January 26 as Barack Obama became the first US president to attend the spectacular military and cultural display in a mark of the nations' growing closeness. AFP PHOTO/ PRAKASH SINGH        (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (2L) waves to spectators as he leaves with US First Lady Michelle Obama (2R), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Indian President Pranab Mukherjee (R) after attending India's Republic Day parade on Rajpath in New Delhi on January 26, 2015. Rain failed to dampen spirits at India's Republic Day parade January 26 as Barack Obama became the first US president to attend the spectacular military and cultural display in a mark of the nations' growing closeness. AFP PHOTO/ PRAKASH SINGH (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

What a difference 16 months have made in U.S.-India relations. The spring 2014 election of Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister has buoyed what had been an often fractious bilateral relationship with Washington. With an extremely popular Modi at their nation’s helm, the Indian public has a sense of confidence in dealing with the United States. Pro-American sentiment in the country is on the rise. And, for their part, Americans have caught some of the Modi fever. Their views of India are rebounding.

Modi meets President Barack Obama in New York on Monday, Sept. 28, during the annual United Nations General Assembly. This relationship is becoming one of Obama’s closest international bonds: Modi visited the White House last year, and Obama reciprocated this past January by becoming the first U.S. president to participate in India’s Republic Day celebration.

No major new U.S.-India initiatives are expected from the U.N. tête-à-tête. But the meeting is another sign of mending American ties with the world’s fastest growing and second most-populous nation. The challenge will be whether, in Obama’s final year in office, the president and the prime minister can find ways to leverage Modi’s strong support at home and India’s rising image in the United States into a more deeply rooted bilateral relationship. Going forward, a stronger relationship may help both nations better deal with shared concerns such as China, climate change, and Islamic terrorist groups.

Obama meets an Indian prime minister still riding the wave that swept him into office last year. About two-thirds of Indians have a very favorable view of Modi. This high level of approval is two to three times that for other leading Indian politicians, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

Roughly three-quarters of those surveyed also have a lot of confidence in Modi doing the right thing regarding world affairs. And Indians are particularly supportive of Modi’s dealings with the United States. About two-thirds of the public approve of his job in handling relations with Washington.

This confidence in Modi’s leadership parallels a rising national self-confidence. Fully 85 percent of the Indian public has a very favorable opinion of their own country, up 13 percentage points in just one year. Confident in their nation and their leader, Indians feel better about relations with the United States, suggesting there is a fertile field for Modi and Obama to sow the seeds of a better bilateral relationship.

Seven-in-ten Indians (70 percent) have a favorable opinion of America. That assessment is up 15 points from 2014. Indians’ appreciation reflects admiration for the American economy. Roughly two-thirds (66 percent) see the United States as the world’s leading economic power — up 19 points since 2014. And about six-in-ten (63 percent) say it is more important for India to have strong economic ties with the United States, compared with just 14 percent who hold the view that a closer commercial relationship with China would be in India’s best interest.

But Indians’ positive views of Uncle Sam also reflect a growing appreciation for Obama. Just 48 percent of Indians had confidence in the U.S. president in 2014. But a year later, after Obama visited India and Modi made the reverse trip, 74 percent now see him in a positive light.

For their part, 63 percent of Americans have a favorable view of India, up from 55 percent just last year.

This reciprocal goodwill creates a positive backdrop for Washington and New Delhi to try to tackle some shared international challenges.

Roughly seven-in-10 Americans and about six-in-10 Indians are worried about China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors. Many Indians believe being tough with China on these disputes is more important than having a strong economic relationship with Beijing. And, by more than four-to-one, Indians say it is more important to have strong economic ties with the United States than with China. With Indians far more favorably disposed toward Washington than toward Beijing, there would seem to be support for a cooperative effort in dealing with China.

Globally, the United States is the second-largest annual emitter of carbon dioxide; India is number four. About nine-in-10 Indians and more than seven-in-10 Americans are concerned about climate change. This suggests Modi and Obama may have at least general public support to overcome past bilateral differences on this issue at the U.N. climate change conference coming up in Paris at the end of November. Of course, the devil is always in the details and both may well face domestic political opposition on specific emissions-reducing commitments.

The U.S.-India relationship is clearly on the rebound. The two publics have more positive views of each other and the nations’ leaders appear to like each other. The stage seems set for Washington and New Delhi to deepen their cooperation on a range of shared concerns.

Photo credit: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.

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