Now that the bouts of indignation and suppressed jubilation over the US visa of the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, are behind us, it is instructive to consider another possibility. What would be the reaction in India if the advisers of President George W. Bush decided to invite Zaheera Sheikh of the Best Bakery case fame or, for that matter, Bilkis Bano, another unfortunate victim of the 2002 Gujarat riots, to the White House for this year's Diwali reception'
The speculation is not entirely absurd considering the hype over the invitation to five sisters and the fianc' of a murdered Belfast man for last week's St Patrick's Day reception at the White House. The cases are not entirely dissimilar. Zaheera (with a lot of caveats) and Bilkis, with the assistance of motivated activists, have been attempting to secure justice for their relatives who were brutally murdered three years ago, and facing a lot of flak for their persistence. Likewise, the McCartney sisters and Bridgeen Hagans have mounted a brave campaign to secure the judicial conviction of the members of the Irish Republican Army who knifed Robert McCartney to death at the Magennis's Whiskey Caf' in Belfast.
The similarities don't end here. Just as the supporters of the two Gujarati Muslim women have charged the state government and Hindu organizations with obstruction, manipulation and intimidation, the McCartney sisters have directed their ire at the IRA and the Sinn Fein leadership. The stalwarts of the Irish Republican movement have been accused of promoting a wave of terror in Northern Ireland that prevents eyewitnesses from giving evidence in court. The IRA, on its part, scored a self-goal by flippantly offering to shoot the men who were responsible for the murder.
Whether the perpetrators of the murders in Vadodara or the killers of McCartney are punished or not depends entirely on the courts in India and the United Kingdom. The subjective preferences of the White House have little bearing on the course of criminal justice in both countries. What is significant, however, is that the Bush administration has chosen to make the Gujarat riots and the thuggery of the IRA a part of its foreign-policy agenda. If Modi was denied the right to address a harmless convention of Gujarati hotel owners in Florida, the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, was consciously kept out of the St Patrick's Day reception at the White House. Modi was reduced to speaking over a satellite link and Adams had to make do with drinking Guiness with the B-team of the Irish American elite. Adams, of course, was not prevented from entering the United States of America though, unlike previous years, he was made to feel distinctly unwelcome in Washington DC.
That is where the similarities end. There may have been some quiet celebrations in Whitehall at the IRA finally receiving its comeuppance across the pond and losing out on the dollar donations that sustain its hooded gunmen and bombers. However, there was little by way of questioning the right of the White House and other stalwarts on Capitol Hill to take such a direct interest in the internal affairs of the UK. What is even more interesting is that the earlier concern over the Irish diaspora moulding state-department policy towards the sectarian conflict and the peace process have been subsumed by a wave of relief over Americans finally realizing that the IRA and Sinn Fein are not quite kosher. There is little by way of concern that President Bush's action constitutes an infringement of national sovereignty. Even right-wing Tories, accustomed to declaiming against the European Union's intrusive ways, expressed hope that President Bush's wariness of the Republican movement would now rub off on the prime minister, Tony Blair.
In India on the other hand, regardless of the distaste with which the constituents of the United Progressive Alliance view Modi, there was complete unanimity that the US had exceeded its brief. The right of the US to determine who should and who shouldn't visit its shores was not questioned. What angered the Indian political classes was the presumption of the US to question the bona fides of a democratically-elected chief minister. It was felt, quite rightly, that the US had no right to sit in judgment on the internal affairs of the country. If Modi is indeed beyond the pale and guilty of religious intolerance, that is a matter for Indians to decide. The US, it was agreed, could not nudge a regime change in Gujarat.
It has also been rightly pointed out that the US would never dare take such an action against any controversial leader from, say, China. Nor, for that matter, would it risk offending domestic Jewish opinion by refusing entry to a hard-line Zionist from Israel. Modi's persona non grata status, therefore, stemmed largely from the inadequacies of the Indian-American community in the US.
The divergent British and Indian responses epitomize the growing North-South divide over sovereignty. As free trade and multilateral rule-based trading agreements take shape, the purity of national sovereignty has been diluted. The EU thinks nothing of imposing its standards on both weights and measures and family laws on a reluctant Britain. The Anglo-American 'special relationship' has led to London willingly eschewing independent foreign policy initiatives. And in the case of Ireland, both Dublin and London have tacitly acquiesced in a larger involvement of Washington in the peace process.
To be fair, not all European countries are so enamoured of flexible sovereignty. France, for example, is quite an evangelist when it comes to pushing for more powers for the EU. Yet, when it comes to the US, it zealously guards its independence and sovereignty. The legacy of Charles de Gaulle would certainly have ensured that the French response to any US interference in its internal affairs would have been irritable. And as for Russia, President Vladimir Putin has made it quite apparent that he is not amused by President Bush's gratuitous sermons on democracy.
The McCartney jamboree and the furore over Modi's US visa have highlighted the growing tensions that are likely to follow the American and European belief that political and economic values are universal and override national frontiers. Having conceded large chunks of national sovereignty to the World Trade Organization, many countries, but particularly aspiring great powers such as Russia, China and India, will come under increasing pressure to fall in line with the US's democratic evangelism, more so since that controversial approach looks like yielding returns in west Asia, notably Iraq and Lebanon.
In the coming years, Indian policy-makers will have to consider how best to reconcile the imperatives of a vibrant capitalism with Washington's growing political intrusiveness. US strategists have made no secret of their determination to use trade and investment to effect social and political changes in countries with other value systems. The selection of Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank may be an important step in that direction. There is, for example, already some talk of the US imposing sanctions against India for its relative failure to control trafficking in women and children.
For the past decade, India has proceeded on the assumption that its future lies in forging an understanding with the US based on a common adherence to democracy and capitalism. By insisting that democracy is a ready-fit Western import, the US is making that project increasingly difficult. The Modi incident merely confirms the suspicion that America doesn't have the temperament for empire.