Did Obama wait too long to engage India’s Modi?

Foreign PolicyMay 20, 2014 

Bharatiya Janata Party leader and India’s next prime minister Narendra Modi, right, meets with supporters Saturday in New Delhi.

ALTAF QADRI/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

With a simple phone call on Friday afternoon, President Barack Obama invited the next prime minister of India to the United States and effectively ended an almost decade-long visa ban on the controversial Indian politician Narendra Modi.

The Indian leader, whose Bharatiya Janata Party just swept the polls in India’s general election, had been prevented from traveling to the United States due to his involvement in deadly communal riots in 2002.

But given the importance of the U.S.-India partnership, and Modi’s tremendous popularity at home, some experts say Obama and the State Department waited too long to forge meaningful ties with Modi risking lasting damage to the strategically vital relationship between the two powers.

“The Obama administration’s failure to publicly repudiate the visa ban (earlier) can only be seen as shortsighted at best, or an example of stupefying State Department inertia at worst,” said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, a group that advocates on behalf of Hindu-Americans.

“They should have been meeting with him immediately when it was clear he was going to lead the BJP, which was last fall,” added Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

For years, supporters of Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, had been asking the Obama administration to clarify his travel status as the Indian leader’s political career advanced. Washington denied him a diplomatic visa in 2005 and revoked his existing business visa due to his role in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat in which some 1,000 people — mostly Muslims — were killed.

Modi stood accused of stoking religious violence and failing to protect Gujarat’s Muslim minority. A subsequent resolution passed by Congress condemned him for promoting Nazi ideology and “racial hatred.” In 2005, Foggy Bottom revoked his visa under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which makes foreign officials who are responsible for “serious” violations of religious freedom ineligible for travel to America.

In recent months, the standing policy of the U.S. government was that Modi could apply for a visa and await the results.

“Our long-standing policy with regard to the chief minister is that he is welcome to apply for a visa and await a review like any other applicant,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told Foreign Policy in December. “That review will be grounded in U.S. law.”

But Modi, a proud politician in the middle of an election, had little reason to apply for a visa and risk the negative consequences of being rejected. His supporters, meanwhile, grimaced at Washington’s refusal to clarify his travel status as European nations actively courted him.

“The British had been meeting with Modi since 2012,” noted Curtis. “The White House was behind the curve, and now the onus is on them to give a very clear signal that they’re ready to do business with Modi.”

Of course, not everyone thinks Modi deserves a hero’s welcome. Shaik Ubaid, spokesman for the Coalition Against Genocide, a group that raises awareness about the 2002 riots in Gujarat, says the group will continue to press the issue of Modi’s past crimes.

Others believe it was time for the U.S. to embrace Modi, the leader of the world’s largest democracy, and doubt that the visa ban will seriously hinder relations between the two countries over the long haul.

When asked how the U.S. would engage with Modi going forward, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington would prioritize a government-to-government relationship that “mirrors the affection between our people.”

“With the new government, we intend to foster our strategic partnership with India and offer enhanced collaboration on the economy, defense, homeland security and counterterrorism, as well as the health sector,” said Psaki.

John Hudson writes for Foreign Policy.

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service