United States of Modi

The tale of Narendra Modi and the United States is also a parable of how the relationship between the two countries requires constant work. And, in this case, both countries are democracies whose respective civil societies can intrude on affairs of state, making that work all the more difficult.

A quick recap: In 2005, the administration of George W. Bush revoked the visa of Gujarati chief minister Narendra Modi because of his involvement in, or at least moral responsibility for, the 2002 anti-Muslim riots. The charge was never clear, and the clause in the US immigration law is quite vague. The US, which was following the lead of Britain and the European Union, may have been looking for a means to furbish their credentials with Muslims around the world after invading Iraq and Afghanistan. India should have objected at that point, making the argument that such revocations should await pronouncements by the Indian judicial system. But that was impossible in the Congress-led government. 

Modi survived a Supreme Court investigation and, more usefully, kept winning elections in Guiarat. As tends to happen in a democracy, the ballot box helped re-legitimize him. But the international ban caused rancor. Modi visited all over Asia and any country that would have him.  When Modi realized that London was the lynchpin of the global boycott, Gujarat deliberately diverted contracts away from British firms.

By the summer of last year, the US State Department was arguing that the US needed to revoke the visa ban. Under US rules, once Modi was declared a prime ministerial candidate, Washington would have to sit on the fence until after the elections so as not to look like the US was helping one candidate over another.

But the Obama administration, consumed by domestic issues and not especially excited about India, ignored this advice. What, after all, were the benefits of changing the policy given the outcry it would cause among human rights groups. The US had its own doubts about the likelihood of Modi winning — mostly centered around his need to sweep Uttar Pradesh, doubts that were still prevalent in December.

However, Modi’s victory chances were less important in US calculations than the fact that he was a sure shot for the BJP’s candidacy. But the US muffed the shot. In September, Modi was declared candidate for prime minister. Britain, the original source of the visa action, had its high commissioner meet the Gujarati leader the next month. The European Union followed quickly afterwards. Only the US held out, because with Modi now a candidate, its non-interference rule meant it could do nothing about the visa.

Instead, Washington began looking at just having a symbolic meeting between its ambassador and Modi, to signal that he was no longer a pariah. Near the end of November, the US embassy proposed to the Gujarati that he attend some event in New Delhi which the US ambassador was scheduled to go to. Modi, rightly, said nothing doing. It must be a one-on-one and the US ambassador had to come to wherever he was. The US grudgingly accepted that it would have to fly its envoy to wherever Modi was to unfreeze relations before he became prime minister.

One thing the US diplomats knew also was that many of Modi’s inner circle were openly talking about some sort of retaliation against Washington if he became prime minister. A meeting would, they felt, help blunt this possibility. Modi, after all, had never said anything of the sort.

Then the Devyani Khobragade affair broke out in mid-December and put the whole thing on hold. Khobragade’s return to India, in effect, got the ball rolling again, and the US ambassador’s trip to Gujarat this week was the final consequence.

Looking back, it seems that both the US and Indian diplomats could have kept this from blowing up if they had applied some thought as to where it was going. Inserting a codicil that the visa ban would apply until the Indian judiciary had pronounced on the matter. A little forethought, a nod to India’s democratic culture and a recognition that Indian politics are unpredictable could have ensured this never happened.

Copyright © 2014 the Hindustan Times.

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