By Swapan Dasgupta
No election, and certainly not an Indian election, is ever won on the strength of diplomatic despatches. Like most other pundits in the forecasting business, diplomats often get it right and occasionally wrong.
This being the case, the most that can be read into the explanations in the media of US Ambassador Nancy Powell’s premature resignation is that Washington has concluded that the next Indian government belongs to Narendra Modi. Whether or not this piece of political astrology was a the heart of the change of guard in Roosevelt House will remain a matter of conjecture till another Snowden releases a clutch of diplomatic telegrams or some future Senate hearing throws greater light on the matter. However, if we accept the version that the US State Department was wrong-footed by Modi’s dramatic entry into the national stage and took remedial action to smoothen Washington’s response to the succession, one question remains: why did the US get itself into such an awkward situation in the first place?
Those who are inclined to trace the origin of the problem to the 2005 decision of the George W. Bush administration to deny Modi a visa for possible travel to the US aren’t far off the mark. The cancellation of Modi’s existing visa didn’t happen because the Gujarat Chief Minister planned a grand tour to interact with his innumerable fans located across the Atlantic. The visa cancellation was a gratuitous and unilateral measure aimed primarily, it is said, at placating the Christian evangelical lobby that had developed a distaste for Modi.
Whatever the reasons behind dubbing Modi an international pariah and the subject of a diplomatic boycott involving both the US and the European Union member states, one conclusion was inescapable: it was a brazen attempt to pronounce judgment on the internal affairs of a sovereign country. Modi, after all, hadn’t been held guilty by for “mass murder” by an Indian criminal court. Indeed, there were no charges against him then or subsequently. Yes, the Gujarat leader had been pilloried mercilessly by both his political opponents and the human rights lobby that has formidable international links. A political aversion to Modi was translated into the diplomatic censure of a man who held a Constitutional position. It was a step too far and one that didn’t lend itself to an easy U-turn.
This is not to suggest that the US was obliged to facilitate a visit by Modi. Every sovereign nation has the inalienable right to determine who is welcome and who is not. Diplomats are routinely accustomed to informing host countries that the visit of a particular dignitary would be inappropriate. Tough messages are often delivered with discretion. Had Modi sought to visit the US in 2005, his office could have been discreetly told that the journey would be injudicious. Indeed, I am told that an European country with a better grasp of diplomatic niceties did pass on such an unpleasant message to Modi—in the light of the controversies surrounding him. However, it was done without a whiff of publicity.
The US, however, made a public show of its visa refusal and made it out that the action was part of the sanctions against those held responsible for human rights violations. The US chose to make a political point based on the understanding that it would also set the agenda for a wider debate on Modi’s political untouchability.
Maybe the idea was also to lessen Indian Muslim hostility to the Bush Administration then engaged in its War on Terror. Maybe it was aimed at bolstering Congress support for the nuclear deal, then in the process of negotiation. Whatever the calculations, the Modi visa controversy came to acquire a life of its own.
For nearly eight years, the US and its friends broke off all diplomatic contact with the Gujarat Government. This over-reaction also involved many informal academic advisers who fed the US Embassy and the State Department with weighty assessments of why Modi was a non-starter in national politics. I have met US academics, mainly of Indian origin, who even proudly proclaimed that they had advised the US Embassy to go slow on opening a consular office in Ahmedabad. For them, flaunting an anti-Modi badge ensured privileged access into the corridors of UPA power. And there’s no denying that until at least a year ago, the US remained the flavour of the season for both Congress ministers and a supplicant media.
Yet, the blockade of Modi warranted a re-examination after he won his third consecutive election victory in Gujarat in December 2012. By the time of the Vibrant Gujarat Summit of 2013, many European countries decided that the time was opportune to re-establish ties with a state whose economy looked extremely promising. Predictably, the British were the most demonstrative with their proclamation of bi-partisanship but other EU countries weren’t far behind. The only real resistance was put up by France which too had invested heavily in the Congress establishment and in the skewed advice of its so-called India experts.
Today, the countries that had kept up a civilised relationship with Modi despite the US’s strictures—these include Japan, Singapore, Canada, Australia, Israel and even China—are happy with the knowledge that their transition to a new regime will be extra smooth. Nor will the others who changed their tune midway feel disadvantaged. It is only the US that invested politically in the witch-hunt against Modi that feels seriously threatened.
Making Ambassador Powell the fall guy may not entirely resolve the larger issues raised by the US’s needless interference in India’s domestic politics. Nor will bonhomie be instantly restored if a functionary of Gujarati origin is despatched as the new Ambassador. Having exposed its fangs publicly, Washington will not readily admit it miscalculated horribly. If Modi comes to power, a working relationship with the US Embassy will be established. But let us have no doubts that the repair job will also be accompanied by surreptitious attempts to undermine him.
The US hates having to admit it was ever wrong.