Paris climate deal: How Obama won over Modi

Washington: Former US president Barack Obama made an exceptional use of his race, went out of his way to develop a personal chemistry with Narendra Modi and moved the State of the Union Address to attend the Republic Day as chief guest so as to win over the Indian prime minister on the Paris Climate Change deal, according to his former aide.

The tactics deployed by Obama to bring India on board, which was the only major power in his way of the climate deal, was described by his former top personal and national security aide Benjamin Rhodes in a podcast interview. “By the time we got to Paris, the main hold was India,” Rhodes said during a discussion with Kurt Campbell, the former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, and Richard Verma, the former US Ambassador to India, in their ‘The Tealeaves’ Podcast of the Asia Group.

In response to questions from Ambassador Verma, Rhodes said the then Obama administration had made breakthrough deal with the Chinese at the end of 2014 where they announced their bilateral emissions reductions targets. This became the core of the Paris agreement, he noted. Following the deal by the two biggest emitters, Rhodes said, other countries started announcing their commitments for the agreement. And as a result, the climate agreement in Paris was within reach. However, the “main holdout was India”, Rhodes said as he gave an insight into the strategy adopted by Obama to win Modi.

“We had to move the State of the Union address to go to (India),” he said, referring to Obama’s visit to India to attend the Republic Day celebrations in January 26, 2015 as the chief guest. Obama is the only American president to visit India twice. The State of the Union Address (SOTU) is an annual message delivered by the US president to a joint session of the Congress at the beginning of each calendar year in office. Referring to the January 26 invitation from the Indian prime minister, he said, “Given that India was more important for US for its Paris agreement, his top advisors told him to develop personal rapport with Modi…and advised him that he should accept the invite and go…And Obama really did develop a personal rapport with Modi over multiple meetings.”

It was this personal rapport that helped Obama successfully argue his case with India. Winning Modi also helped Obama get other countries like South Africa and Brazil on board, he claimed. Describing the negotiations with Indian officials in Paris as an unforgettable experience, Rhodes said, “I’ll never forget. Obama comes around the corner and the Indian negotiators are there before Modi…they start arguing with Obama. I’d never seen anything like this…This argument between Obama and Indian negotiators went on for 30 minutes. The president had no luck, till Modi arrived.” Modi comes around the corner and gets to the core of the issue.

Modi told Obama he has 300 million people without electricity. “You’re telling me I can’t use coal and, and I got to do all these things,” the Indian prime minister said. It was at this moment, Rhodes claimed, Obama brought in his race angle. “I remember a never seen Obama do this,” Rhodes said, adding that he generally used to avoid bringing up his race with other leaders. Quoting Obama, Rhodes said the then US president told Modi, “Look, you know, I get it. I’m black, I’m African American. I know what it’s like to be in an unfair system where a bunch of people got rich on your back…but I also have to live in the world that I’m in…if I just made decisions based on that resentment, then I actually would never catch up.”

Rhodes claimed Obama told Modi that the US will help India to set up solar power plants so that people can get energy faster. He also informed Modi about the big solar initiatives that the US was going to launch with Bill Gates in Paris. “Modi, you could tell, he totally got it,” Rhodes said.