Diplomacy is expedient, not moral. No other country knows it better than the United States. That explains why Washington is now beginning to court Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi after keeping him away from America for nine years.
In a solid scoop, The Hindustan Times newspaper yesterday broke the story that U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy J. Powell had sought and had been granted a meeting with Modi. For those of you who may not still know it despite reading this blog, Modi is the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat and is the prime ministerial candidate for India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). By some consensus he could well become India’s next prime minister.
Since 2005, Modi remains disbarred from visiting America under a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act relating to foreign government officials "who have committed particularly severe violations of religious freedom." The 2002 Gujarat riots, under his watch, were the primary cause that triggered this particular section.
It is against this backdrop that Powell’s meeting with the chief minister should be seen. Everything about the U.S. overture is obvious and expedient. Three months or so before India elects a new prime minister, Washington seems to sense that Modi might just make it as the next prime minister. It is a calculated move meant not to take sides before the elections but establish the channels of communication in case Modi does indeed win. Obviously, the U.S. does not want to be caught in a terribly uncomfortable position of having to deal with the elected leader of the world’s largest democracy whom it has officially banned from the American shores.
At the very least the U.S. decision to deny the chief minister a visa was a curious one considering that it has no moral compunctions supping with all manners of unapologetically cruel despots who do Washington’s bidding. For the better part of the last nine years the U.S. diplomatic establishment maintained the view that Modi is not so important as to be accorded any diplomatic niceties. He was viewed as a minor satrap in its strategic engagement with India. I would argue that for a length of time those who concern themselves with such matters mistakenly thought that there was no chance of Modi rising to lead India. Now that there is a very real possibility that Washington may well have to deal with him as prime minister, the diplomatic machinery is being lubricated with lumps of expediency.
The U.S. ambassador, obviously under instructions from the highest levels of the Obama Administration, had to seek a meeting with the chief minister. I can guarantee that there would not have been any high-fiving in the chief minister’s office because smug rejection of U.S. endorsement has been the default temperament of that office. Modi is astute enough to know that Washington had zero option other than seeking him out before the parliamentary elections.
Modi may not have explicitly expressed them but if his overall behavioral arch is any guide he does harbor deep antipathies toward Washington on account of the visa denial issue. As I had said earlier a Modi administration would make the U.S. wait outside the door of his South Block office longer than they are accustomed to. The meeting between Powell and Modi is unlikely to repair the core damage caused to the chief minister’s sense of self by the visa denial. He may not hold grudges in the petty sense of the word but Washington should be not surprised if as prime minister Modi is decidedly less amenable to U.S. demands than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been.
I was joking with my journalist friends yesterday that when Powell meets Modi in either Gujarat’s capital Gandhinagar or Ahmedabad, she can expect a sumptuously cooked crow served on a silver platter. No matter how one looks at it, the U.S. is having to eat crow over the Modi affair. As a good host Modi might make it easier by serving an humble pie for dessert.