Unites 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 part, it’s because they are both democracies in which their respective civil societies can intrude on affairs of state that makes it so difficult.

A quick recap.

In 2005, the administration of George W. Bush revoked the visas of Gujarati chief minister, Narendra Modi, because of his involvement, 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.

India should have objected at this point, making the argument that such revocations should await pronouncements by the Indian judicial system. But that would have been impossible for a Congress-led government. 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.

Modi was able to survive a Supreme Court investigation and, more usefully, kept winning elections in Gujarat. As tends to happen in democracy, the ballot box helped re-legitimize him.

But the international ban caused rancour. Modi visited all over Asia and any country that would have him. Gujarat deliberately diverted contracts away from British firms — as Modi realised that London was the lynchpin of the global boycott.

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 as it would like the US was helping one candidate over the other.

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 a Modi winning, ones that centred around his need to sweep Uttar Pradesh. Doubts that were still prevalent in December.

But Modi’s victory chances were less important in US calculations than the fact he was a sure shot for the BJP’s candidacy.

The US muffed the shot however. In September, Modi was declared prime ministerial candidate. 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. This was because with Modi now as 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, signalled 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 was grudgingly coming to accept 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 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 in Indian politics is unpredictable could have ensure this never happened.

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