Former Republican Congressman Joe Walsh (Pic: globalgujaratnews.com)
I did the following piece as part of my weekly column for a new Gujarat-focused news portal Global Gujarat News. I had made a brief reference to the subject in this blog on November 7.
By Mayank Chhaya
A minor aside to President Barack Obama’s assertive re-election was the defeat of Republican Congressman Joe Walsh, the most ardent advocate for the revocation of the ban on a US visa for Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
Walsh, who had in recent months made the revocation one of his signature issues tailored for the benefit of the small but wealthy India American community, was defeated by a 20-year war veteran and Democrat Tammy Duckworth.
It is hard to say if Walsh campaigned out of political expediency to win some political support and donation from a vocal section of the Indian American community in Chicago or out of genuine conviction or a combination of the two or it was a case of expediency becoming conviction. With Walsh gone, one does not know about the fate of this campaign. It is highly unlikely that Duckworth would take it up as a cause.
It would help to recall that the ban on Modi was imposed in 2005 when George W. Bush was president and has been continued by Obama. It was imposed under a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act relating to foreign government officials "who have committed particularly severe violations of religious freedom." In the case of the Gujarat chief minister, the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which hundreds of Muslims were killed, were the primary cause that triggered this particular section.
There is nothing to suggest that ending the visa ban on Modi would rise to the level of high bilateral priority between the US and India early in Obama’s second term. However, it would be interesting to see how the dynamic might play out when India goes for general elections in 2014 and if Modi, by a combination of astute politicking and quirky luck, manages to emerge as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for prime minister.
Imagine a scenario where Modi does indeed rise to become India’s prime minister in 2014 which gives him a full two years inside Obama’s second term. It is conceivable that the US would end the visa ban on him long before he actually takes over, thereby averting a diplomatic disaster of having to deal with one of Washington’s most important allies, namely India, whose leader it would not allow to enter its borders. Of course, enormous ifs and buts exist on the way to such a scenario and if current trends are any indications Modi’s national role remains in serious jeopardy. That said, the prospect of such a scenario coming upon us is not altogether absurd.
Contrary to a perception among some Modi supporters, the ban on his US visa is not a subject that exercises the US State Department. Recent Indian media reports quoting State Department sources that Modi was free to apply were erroneously interpreted by his supporters to mean that Washington too was softening its stand on the issue after Britain ended his diplomatic isolation after nearly ten years. What it merely means is that anyone can apply for a visa but to grant it or deny it is entirely the prerogative of the US government’s. The suggestion that the US would consider Modi’s request should he to seek a visa in any way suggests a rethink within the government is a bit of an optimistic stretch.
In Modi’s case, it would require a fair amount of legislative process to establish that the provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act no longer apply to him or that enough has happened since their imposition to compel their reversal.
My recent visit to Ahmedabad did not suggest that even for the chief minister a US visa is a matter of any urgency at all. In a twisted way the ban continues to bolster his credentials as a rebel whose cause is Gujarat and who could not care less about what America thinks. Britain’s decision to relent played into the narrative of Modi the unyielding champion of the Gujarati ethos. He has nothing to lose by letting Americans take their own time to follow suit.