US, India dance awkwardly around the man who might be India's next leader

If Narendra Modi wins India's elections next year it would inject discomfort into the deepening relationship between India and the US.

Aijaz Rahi/AP
India's main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi gestures during a campaign rally for the upcoming state elections in Bangalore, India, April 28.

Narendra Modi, India’s potential next prime minister, addressed expatriate Indians in 18 US cities Sunday evening via video conference. He spoke of global warming and malnutrition, gave a shout-out to the mayor of Chicago, and applauded the Indian diaspora for their achievements. He even told them he was building a statue twice the size of the Statue of Liberty to be called the Statue of Unity.

But Mr. Modi did not mention why he was making this address by satellite and not in person. The United States denied him a visa in 2005 for his alleged complicity in bloody anti-Muslim violence in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. Ever since, ambiguity has surrounded Modi’s ability to travel to the US, one he has not tested again with another application.

But in the intervening years his political star has risen in India, where he is a leader of the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi has emerged as the party's front-runner for the post of prime minister in India’s next general elections, slated for 2014. With the ruling coalition beset by a raucous parade of corruption scandals, the main opposition BJP is poised to perform well.

If Modi were to become prime minister, it would inject discomfort into relations between India and the US – two democracies that have gone from distrusting each other to talking of a shared destiny in the span of a decade. The relationship is now too broad to be deeply damaged, and analysts say Washington will probably wave away any visa barriers. But relations between the two country’s leaders will hew more to protocol than personal affection.

“It’s going to be awkward for the US” if he wins, says Sumit Ganguly, a scholar of US-India relations at Indiana University, Bloomington. “I am afraid for the first time we are going to be dealing with a prime minister in India where we feel genuinely uneasy, and the Indian diplomats will have a tough time in this country.”

Modi should expect no invitations to a US state dinner and no meetings on the sidelines of the G-20 with the president, Dr. Ganguly says, and that makes discussing new initiatives difficult. 

“You don’t need to snub him, but you don’t need to embrace him either,” says Ganguly. “And I think that’s exactly the line the State Department is going to take. They will follow protocol, but they are not going to go out of their way to lionize this guy.”

For now, the State Department will only say that “the chief minister is welcome to apply for a visa and await a review like any other applicant. That review will be grounded in US law.”

Denying him the visa in 2005, a US embassy spokesperson had said that he was denied a diplomatic visa because he was not visiting for a diplomatic purpose and, in addition, his existing tourist/business visa was being revoked under Section 212 (a)(2)(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Under the section, any government official who was "responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom” is ineligible for a visa.

The European Union ends boycott 

The rioting in Gujarat in 2002 led to the killing of more than a 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Modi was then, as he is now, the chief minister of the state. Human rights groups have accused officials in his government of involvement and argued he did not do enough to stop the violence or prosecute the perpetrators. The Gujarat High Court in 2012 upbraided Modi for "inaction and negligence" during the riots. Meanwhile, earlier this year, an investigative team appointed by the Indian Supreme Court cleared Modi and 61 others in the riots.

India's Ministry of External Affairs responded strongly in 2005 to the visa denial, saying that the decision was "uncalled for and displays lack of courtesy and sensitivity towards a constitutionally-elected chief minister of a state of India."

US business interests in India and the growing political clout of the Indian American community could reverse the US policy on Modi, says Lalit Mansingh, the former Indian foreign secretary who was ambassador to the United States at the time of the 2002 violence.

"The European Union has changed its stance recently and has ended its boycott of Modi. I have spoken to a number of European ambassadors who say that Indian courts have not found the allegation to be true and hence the removal of restrictions," says Mr. Mansingh.

What about the US?

But pressure remains in the US against any change.

In its annual report released last month, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) asked the US government to deny future visas for Modi.

“We think that the evidence is sufficient and the concerns are sufficient … about his role – not directly, but nonetheless in a position of responsibility – in the very serious violence that took place in Gujarat that it just would not be appropriate” to issue Modi a visa, says USCIRF Chair Katrina Lantos Swett.

She acknowledges that the US will be factoring in important security, commercial, and democratic considerations should Modi be elevated by Indian voters. But religious freedom and human rights are values that also need to be considered, she says. “Democratic processes can be used to elect people who are perhaps unworthy at times of the office they hold,” she says.

For some Gujaratis living in the US, however, Modi’s reelection in 2007 shows he has a mandate from the people and should be accorded some respect.

“He is an elected person of a state in India. There are 60 million Gujarati people,” says Navin Patel, president of Gujarati Samaj in Atlanta, one of the groups that hosted Modi’s speech Sunday. “The American government made a mistake not giving him a visa.”

A Modi aide tells the Monitor that his boss has not applied for a visa recently. That may be because he does not really want to visit the US, argues Modi’s biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

"The continuing ban helps him be seen as a martyr by his political base," says Mr. Mukhopadhyay, who adds that Modi as prime minister would be unlikely to hold a grudge against the United States as his political constituency is pro-US.

Professor Ganguly agrees that the affinities between the American and Indian people would help limit the damage to the overall relationship. “The [bilateral] relationship has become so multifaceted that a prime minister can only expedite or slightly retard it.”

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