It’s a friendship between two powerful men that transcends politics, transcends diplomacy.

It certainly looked like genuine affection when Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled President Barack Obama into a bear hug as he stepped off Air Force One last year. An intimacy seemed to envelope the two as they sat in the garden after talks in Delhi, smiling and chatting.

There are the gushing comments: PM Modi “transcends the ancient and the modern,” President Obama wrote in Time magazine. “Barack and I have formed a bond, a friendship,” PM Modi said.

It’s a friendship that will be shown off when PM Modi arrives on Tuesday at the White House for his seventh meeting with the US president.

Much of that may be calculated optics, suggest commentators.

“It’s politics. It’s pure politics,” said Mihir Sharma, a writer with the Business Standard newspaper to the Associated Press.
Critics of PM Modi say he has shown a determination to put himself at the centre of any diplomatic achievement which accompanying photo ops: a selfie in Shanghai with Chinese Premier Le Keqiang or pouring tea for President Obama in Delhi.

“The Americans have realized that one of the ways that you can get something out of Mr. Modi is to emphasize his personal charm,” said Mr Sharma. “It’s in the interests of pretty much every country he visits to stress the warmth of the personal relationship between their leader and the Indian Prime Minister.”

Others feel he is helping to push India with his foreign trips to recognition as a world power as it bids for entry to the UN’s National Security Council or the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group. “He comes back from his visits (abroad) to say: ‘I’ve been able to secure so much respect for India,'” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a Modi biographer, to the Associated Press.

PM Modi arrived in Washington last night and will meet with President Obama later today before addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday.

President Obama has much to gain from good relations with Prime Minister Modi, from increased US-India trade to closer ties to another country worried about the rise of China.

“When Modi and Obama meet in the Oval Office, the glue that will bind them together is their mutual concern about a newly assertive China in Asia. Both face the same dilemma. They have no choice but to engage China on trade, global economic stability and climate change given Beijing’s vast international weight and influence. At the same time, Washington and New Delhi understand the necessity of standing up to China’s bullying of Vietnam, the Philippines and other claimants to the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea,” said an editorial in the Washington Post.

For his part, PM Modi will try again to persuade top CEOs that his government has worked to make it easier to invest in India by easing a slew of restrictions.