It was just a casual encounter, but it told a bigger story.
When Joe Biden and Anthony Albanese stopped for a chat with Narendra Modi at the G7 Summit in Japan, the US and Australian leaders remarked that they were getting thousands of requests to attend meetings with him. Albanese then recalled how, on a visit to Gujarat, a crowd of more than 90,000 people cheered wildly for the Indian Prime Minister.
“I should take your autograph,” said Biden.
He could certainly do with some of Modi’s magic. As he approaches next year’s elections, Biden’s approval rating languishes at 42 per cent and has only a small polling lead over his prospective Republican opponent Donald Trump. Anthony Albanese is up for re-election in 2025 and currently enjoys a 53 per cent approval rating.
Not bad, but not Modi, who can count on the support of 79 per cent of the Indian population, an approval rating unseen in American politics since George W Bush invaded Iraq. How he has built and maintained this level of popular acclaim, in a diverse democracy of 1.4 billion people, is an enduring mystery to other politicians.
The heads of the seven democracies assembled in Tokyo – Japan, UK, US, Italy, France, Canada and Germany – were all keen to shake Modi’s hand and engage him for a basket full of reasons.
Some are looking for business, keen to hitch their wagons to India’s ascendant economy. Others urged him to condemn Russia and support Ukraine (President Zelensky was also present). A side meeting of the Quad, made up of India, Japan, Australia and the US, debated security issues in the Asia-Pacific region, including China’s threats to Taiwanese independence.
So apart from his ratings, what is making Modi so popular among his fellow leaders?
For one thing, India currently chairs the G20 group and will host a summit in New Delhi in September. Bringing together Russia, China and the US for the first time this year, it will be a stern test of global diplomacy and participants’ negotiating skills. It always pays to be nice to someone who has invited you into their home.
Second, Modi has somehow forged a relationship with international partners where they are the ones looking for favours. As former US ambassador to India Robert Blackwill put it: “It is the diplomat’s dream to always be asked and never to ask, and India has managed that. One could call it a triumph of Indian diplomacy.”
Far from ostracising India over its neutrality over the Ukraine war, or for buying Russian oil, the G7 regards Modi as an honest broker in global affairs, the leader of a fast-modernising democracy and their best hope for a consensus of like-minded nations in the face of Chinese and Russian aggression.
And with any luck, a little bit of his personal popularity might rub off too.
Dinesh Dhamija founded, built and sold online travel agency ebookers, before serving as a Member of the European Parliament. His latest book, The Indian Century, will be published later this year.