Modi, Biden
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, and Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide of Japan, meet at the White House in Washington Image Credit: The New York Times

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. After Indian Prime Minister’s hugely successful visit to the United States, which concluded on Saturday, Sep. 25, two images from the thousands flashed on screens across the world, remain in one’s mind.

The first, tweeted by US President Joe Biden, shows four world leaders standing together with the distinctive obelisk of the Washington monument in the backdrop.

Biden gave it the following caption: “It was an honour to host the Prime Ministers of Australia, India, and Japan this afternoon for the first-ever in-person Quad Leaders Summit. We share a common vision for the future, and we’re coming together to meet the key challenges of the 21st century.”

More on Modi in US

The four leaders, left to right, but also posing in order of their increasing physical height, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, India’s Modi, US President Biden, and, finally, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, look comfortable and purposive together, without being either too stiff or ceremonial.

There is something reassuring about their posture, body language, even the expression on their faces. The open-eyed interest of Suga, the somewhat more serious countenance of Modi, and the open, much more at-ease smiles of Biden and Morrison. What does the image signify, with the vividly green lawns behind them, the clear blue sky, and the firmly secure, historic Washington Monument in the backdrop?

It suggests not just the steadiness, reliability, and durability of the four leaders and the countries they represent, but also the endurance of a rule-based, stable, and peaceful world order despite the global crisis of the pandemic and the challenges of the changing times.

The pandemic may have claimed more than 4.5 million lives and damaged the livelihoods of many more, but the global economy has not collapsed. Vaccines have been produced and distributed across the world. We are on the road to recovery.

As to changing times, though all the foreign leaders were also to appear at the General Assembly of the United Nations, the world body founded in 1945, in a different age and century, was itself, clearly, no longer central to shaping world policies or politics. The real action was often on its sidelines, in different groupings and alignments.

Values of democracy and free world

The Quad, which the four leaders denote, is one such emergent alliance of aggressive diplomacy as a substitute for global policing or far-flung wars. All the leaders were in Western-style suits except Modi, who was in Indian dress, but they, together, upheld the values of democracy and the free world.

Addressing the UNGA in Hindi, Modi was quick to stress that every sixth person in the world is an Indian. Consequently, “When India grows, the world grows and when India reforms, the world transforms.” Giving his own example as a tea-boy (chaiwalla) who not only twice became India’s prime minister, but was on his seventh visit to the UN, he said that this was the proof that “democracy has delivered.”

Meeting five prominent business and industry CEOs earlier, Modi sent out the powerful message that India is open for business, especially as an IT hub and the world’s pharmacy, suited to manufacture affordable and reliable vaccines for the rest of the world.

Without naming names, he passionately cautioned other leaders on how territorial expansion and terrorism were the greatest of threats to the world order. He held meetings with Vice President Kamala Harris too, whose mother was Indian, as with other prominent officials.

In addition, Modi pledged India’s support for the battle against climate change and undertook to carry with him a large cache of recovered Indian antiquities.

His charisma and outreach to the influential Indian diaspora was evident in his walk in their midst, where he shook hands and connected with adoring crowds, despite heavy security. What is the secret of Modi’s tremendous, even electric, presence? It is that he makes overseas Indians proud of their motherland and its culture.

Significance of Modi’s US trip

The other photo which was so symptomatic of the significance of Modi’s US trip was of him relaxing with Biden in the Oval Office. This was Modi’s first face to face meeting with the US president after Biden assumed office in January this year.

Both leaders had engaging smiles on their faces as they evidentially shared a light-hearted moment. It was as if after the work of strenuous diplomacy was mostly done, they could afford to relate at a more human level with one another.

Modi said that their meetings had been very productive, both from bilateral and the multilateral points of view. As the world’s biggest democracies, the US and India were “natural partners.” “Our rich people-to-people linkages are among our strongest assets,” he added on Twitter.

Just a week before his US visit, Modi celebrated his 71st birthday. His birthday gift? A record breaking 22.5 million vaccinations in one day, which his country men and women gave him.

The other gifts and mementos that he had received over the years, some 1300 of them, were put up for e-auction by the Ministry of Culture, with the proceeds pledged to charities and good causes. A prize item was the Olympic gold medal winning javelin of Neeraj Chopra.

Just a couple of days earlier, Time magazine had included Modi in its list of 100 most influential people in the world. The profile, penned by Fareed Zakaria, called Modi, along with Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, one of India’s three pivotal leaders in its 74 years of independence.

Having seen, observed, covered, and written on Modi since he took charge as the Chief Minister of Gujarat twenty years ago, I would go even farther.

There is no leader other than Mahatma Gandhi who has had a bigger impact on India in the last 100 years than Narendra Modi. His just-completed US visit is only the latest in a long list of his milestones of success. Love him or hate him, he is certainly taking India to new, different, and unprecedented directions and heights.