Obama’s new India problem: What to do with Modi?

Narendra Modi will be the next prime minister of India, but until Friday, he was banned from traveling to the US because of allegations related to a 2002 riot. It’s a new complication for already-rocky US-India relations.

By Mark Sappenfield, Christian Science Monitor
May 18, 2014

On Friday, President Obama did what just about everyone knew he must
and invited Narendra Modi, India’s new prime-minister-in-waiting, to the
United States.

It was anything but a routine invitation.

Mr.
Modi remains the only person ever to be banned from traveling to the
United States under the International Religious Freedom Act. Until
Friday, the Obama administration had not officially clarified whether
the future leader of the world’s largest democracy would even be allowed
to come to Washington.

In truth, there was little suspense.
India is important to US Asia policy, and recent relations have been so
rocky that it would have been unthinkable for Mr. Obama to respond to
the success of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with anything other
than overt enthusiasm.

But the fact that the decision came only
now – only after it was abundantly clear that the BJP had won India’s
recent elections in a landslide of historic proportions – hints at a
reluctance.

Unfairly or not, Modi is in many ways the face of the
2002 Gujarat riots, which saw some of the worst religious violence in
India’s recent history. For a American president who has taken pains to
reach out to the Muslim world – not to mention a president who is
himself a minority – that represents an unneeded complication in
America’s already-strained friendship with India.

The Daily Beast


The question
for the White House is no longer whether to embrace Modi, but how. And
after India was enraged last December by US treatment of an Indian
diplomat in New York charged with visa fraud, Obama must step carefully.

Modi’s travel ban dates to 2005. That was when the State
Department decided that Modi had not done enough to stop the Gujarat
riots. He was chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat at the time,
and critics charged that he allowed Hindus to revenge themselves on
Muslims after a train of Hindu pilgrims had caught fire. (Hindu rioters
believed Muslims had set fire to the train.) More than 1,000 people died
in the riots, about 800 of them Muslim.

Modi has long said he
did what he could, noting in an interview with the Brookings Institution
that he had only been elected the year before and so was still new to
his post. But the BJP’s staunch brand of Hindu nationalism was often
seen as anti-Muslim, and Modi’s actions during the riots played to
critics’ worst fears.

For its part, the Obama administration
chose not to lift the travel ban even as other Western countries slowly
reengaged Modi. The British reopened ties in 2012, for instance. But
there have been signs of a thaw. US Ambassador to India Nancy Powell
visited Modi in Gujarat in February.

Now, it appears, the Indian people have forced the US to go a step further.

Perhaps
fittingly, the US will judge Modi in that same way that his voters
will. One of the reasons that the BJP won so handily (282 of 543 seats
in an election where 36 parties won at least one seat) is because it is
seen as having put its secular ways behind it.

Reuters reports
that Modi’s BJP did well not only in predominantly Hindu voting
districts, but also in areas with a significant Muslim population. A BJP
candidate had won or was leading the still-unfinished counting in 47 of
102 districts where Muslims make up at least 20 percent of the
population. In the last election, the BJP won only 24 of those seats.

The
BJP even won two seats in districts that are majority Muslim. In total,
Muslims make up about 15 percent of the Indian population.

The
ebbing of secular concerns allowed the BJP’s strengths – its economic
credentials and its record against corruption – to come to the fore.
Modi’s state is often called the “Gujarat Miracle” because of its
success in cutting chronic bureaucratic red tape and ensuring 24/7
electricity – a rarity in India.

“This is not a vote on
[religious] lines,” Syed Mohammed Khalid, a Muslim leader in West
Bengal, told Reuters. “This is a vote for development and for jobs. We
respect the people’s verdict, and we think Modi will have to be a
responsible leader.”

Others agree that Modi and the BJP have
shifted their tone and deserve a chance to show they have changed.
Indeed, Modi made headlines last year when he told a crowd in New Delhi:
“My identity is of a Hindutvawadi [Hindu crusader], but I say build
toilets before you build temples,” speaking of the urgent need to build
basic infrastructure across India.

Among Modi’s new supporters
is a former Supreme Court judge who once led a citizens’ investigation
into the 2002 riots and wrote that the slaughter was “organised crime
perpetrated by the chief minister and his government.”

“I am
appealing to Modi, please be non-communal. If you want to be a great PM,
you have to be secular,” V.R. Krishna Iyer told NDTV.com. “If Modi
stood for something at one point, and has changed it publicly, then I
support him,” adding that “Modi has to declare it publicly.”

Those words were not in the White House’s official release, but it seems likely they were in Obama’s thoughts.

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