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Modi-Obama summit: A new way of doing things?

Modi-Obama summit: A new way of doing things?

Personal relations between leaders have a long tradition in international diplomacy. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi readies to take part in his first summit with US President Barack Obama, pundits and the media have focused a good deal of attention on their encounter, billed as one that would seek to detangle the relationship and reenergize the strategic partnership.

There is speculation about whether the two leaders will be able to have an honest conversation and establish a good personal equation to find common ground while advancing their respective national interests and shape international politics.

On Monday evening, Obama will host a private dinner over which they will meet and talk, and that will be followed by bilateral meetings on Tuesday at the Oval Office. It is their first meeting in person and there is expectation that both will really get to know each other and exchange ideas about how best to resolve concerns and reset ties that in recent years have developed many wrinkles.

Although countries act according to their national interests, says Ashley J Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment, "the quality of the personal relations between leaders makes a difference to the way in which they conduct foreign policy. And especially between friendly nations, such as the United States and India, relationship make a huge difference to whether the outcomes of summits are prosaic or momentous. Modi's first order of business in the United States, then, consists of building a strong connection with Obama, of the kind the prime minister enjoys with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe."

The two leaders have some things in common. Both have risen from modest background and are good communicators, known for their oratory, and seen as "purposeful". Their administrations have made infrastructure building central to their development agendas. Modi had successfully adopted some of the election strategies of the 2012 Obama campaign. And Obama had reached out to Modi after the 2014 general election in India.

Officials from both sides say the Modi-Obama conversation will be more honest and wide-ranging, and less talking past each other. There would be strong focus on clean energy, a pet theme of both, defence and security issues and counter-terrorism. "The two leaders I believe will be focused on concrete outcomes because that's how we make progress for both our nations... But more importantly, this is the first time that the two leaders will have an opportunity to meet, and within that, they will be sharing their perspectives on the vision of the relationship and for the path forward," said a senior Obama administration official.

Ahead of the visit, Syed Akbaruddin, Indian external affairs ministry spokesperson, said the talks would have "substantive outcomes."

And yet, there are serious policy differences over trade practices, tax regimes, patent protection, especially in pharma products, agri-market opening, climate change (a legacy issue for Obama) and even Afghanistan. Many say the India-US strategic partnership story is "oversold" as there is a lack of clarity on how close the two nations are to each other's strategic vision.

"Again, the solution is to talk," says Nisha Biswal, the US assistant secretary for South Asia. "We want to work with India, trade with and invest in India, innovate with India, and grow with India."

Biswal also says India "lends a voice which very much aligns with our own goals and objectives on stability and security across the region", highlighting such concerns as freedom of navigation, combating extremism and maintaining a stable balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

Last week the US Senate passed a bipartisan resolution designating Sep 30 -- the day Modi and Obama wrap up their summit -- as "US-India Partnership Day". It is hoped that the prime minister's visit will help build friendship between the two leaders so that differences can be managed and the relationship kicked up to the "next level". There is a sense that the relationship has run into stagnation and both sides feel it can no longer be left to languish, say Lalit Mansingh and Ronen Sen, former Indian ambassadors to the US.

But will the summit bring about change? Expectations shouldn't be too high, as past experience has shown, otherwise they would be followed by disappointment, say others, cautioning that there are limits to coziness.

Robert Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India, however, finds Modi a "good listener", an "experimenting personality" who can produce results that both sides desire.

(Saroj Mohanty is a senior journalist and commentator. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

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