Persona non grata
In 2002, shortly after outspoken Hindu Nationalist Narendra Modi became chief minister of Gujarat, a Muslim attack on a train in the province that killed 59 Hindus sparked a retaliatory strike that resulted in the deaths of over 1,200 people, mostly Muslims. According to many, Modi had not done enough to prevent the attack, and subsequently did nothing to find and prosecute the attackers. Though a legal tribunal last year in Gujarat cleared Modi of all charges surrounding the massacre, he had already become something of a pariah around the world, including in the United States. He was ultimately the first foreign dignitary to ever be denied an entrance visa to the U.S. under the provisions of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. For all practical purposes, Modi was forever banned from entering the US, a status in which he apparently takes great pride.
Forever doesn’t exist in politics…
Meanwhile, in India, memories over the incident were short, especially among the majority Hindus, many of whom had a none-too-favorable view of the West, anyway. Modi was also gaining favor with powerful business interests. He was reelected to his position twice, and during his three terms in office, has managed to oversee an increase in Gujarat‘s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of over ten percent, far better than other provinces or the country as a whole. As his popularity has soared, Modi has found himself being touted by many Indians as the best candidate for India’s Prime Minister, and at this writing, his victory in the election to that office is all but a foregone conclusion. Should he win the election, the U.S. would find itself in a political conundrum, to say the least. As for Modi, he must certainly realize that the “badge of honor” he has long paraded needs to be put away on a shelf somewhere if he is to be considered seriously as Prime Minister and afforded the political perks that are typically bestowed upon heads of state.
The game changes for the US
If and when he assumes the position of Prime Minister, Modi, as head of state, will no longer come under the provisions of the International Religious Freedom Act that had resulted in his earlier ban as a diplomat. He will, of course, be the same person who allegedly tolerated the slaughter of ethnic Muslims in Gujarat province, but as head of state, cannot be denied an entry visa. Given the apparent trend in his popularity and the fact that no case could be made against him in his own province, the U.S. has already begun looking at and dealing with Modi in an entirely different light.
The U.S. State Department tried to schedule a meeting in New Delhi between Modi and Nancy J. Powell, U.S. Ambassador to India, but Modi, keenly aware of his growing clout in the world’s most populous democracy, insisted that the meeting be held in Gujarat’s capital, Gandhinagar. On February 13 of this year, the meeting was held, and according to Modi’s wishes. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki’s statements during a press briefing indicated that the meeting was “not a reflection of anything changing regarding our long-standing and strong advocacy for human rights around the world”. Yet it was obvious that the U.S. realized that a softening of their earlier stance was not only necessary, but inevitable, especially since a number of the United States’ closest allies, including the United Kingdom and Germany, had already made it clear that they were willing to deal with a Modi ministry. The fact that the U.S. has a significant Indian population only adds to the pressure.
With the U.S. emerging very slowly from the recent recession, American lawmakers are feeling intense pressure from business lobbies to promote trade with India, as well as from human rights groups that remain unsatisfied with the 2013 decision by the Indian courts not to prosecute Modi. And while President Obama does lean favorably toward the human rights groups’ perspective, he is also keenly aware of his primary responsibilities, the restoration of the U.S. business climate being at or very near to the top of the list.
It is likely that relations with India will thaw considerably, and that additional trade agreements will be instituted between the two countries, but at the same time, there will likely still be discussions concerning human rights, especially regarding how a Modi-led India will act toward that country’s Muslim minority. How these conflicting agendas will ultimately manifest is anyone’s guess, but it is safe to assume that even in moments of heated rhetoric between the two countries, the effort to build a strong economic and strategic alliance will continue.