Brigade Parade Ground, Calcutta, February 5, 2014
The minister of external affairs, Salman Khurshid, is believed to be the most educated member of the cabinet after the prime minister, Manmohan Singh. A former law don at Oxford, Khurshid was expected to be sensitive to the broadly bi-partisan nature of foreign policy and the importance of national sovereignty in the conduct of international relations. It is, therefore, deeply unfortunate that the minister allowed the heat and dust of a general election campaign and his partisan preference to determine his response to the scheduled meeting of the American ambassador, Nancy Powell, with the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, a man who is the principal challenger to the Congress.
That the scheduled meeting in Gandhinagar is of considerable significance is undeniable. Since the United States of America administration unilaterally rescinded Modi’s US visa in 2005 citing concerns over “human rights”, the American embassy broke off all engagements with the Gujarat government, a step that was in turn emulated by the countries of the European Union. At that time, India’s ambassador to the US had registered his protest to the US at a move against an individual who had been democratically elected to a constitutional position. The protest went unheeded in Washington DC because it was accompanied by signals emanating from Delhi that suggested the ruling Congress was delighted that Modi had been cast in the role of an international pariah. During the 2009 Gujarat assembly election campaign, a Congress spokesperson who also happened to be a lawyer of some distinction, also suggested that Modi be tried in the International Court of Justice for mass murder.
The desire of Modi’s opponents, which included a significant section of the Indian intelligentsia and the editorial classes, to punish him for his failure to contain the horrible riots of 2002 was understandable. Yet, this push for political retribution was bound by the principles of national sovereignty. It was understood that any action against Modi had to pass the test of judicial scrutiny inside India. International outrage may have played a role but there was never any question that the ultimate assessment of Modi’s alleged culpability had to done by the Indian judicial system. Indeed, Washington’s implicit pre-judgment of Modi’s guilt was felt to be gratuitous. After all, even if the US had the right to determine who could or could not arrive on its shores, its self-professed role as India’s conscience keeper was presumptuous.
The US decision to resume contact with Modi at the level of the ambassador — its consul general in Mumbai had met the chief minister infrequently — was a combination of two factors. Since early 2013, soon after Modi’s third successive electoral victory in Gujarat in 2012, many EU countries decided to resume normal links with Modi. The United Kingdom was first off the block and it was followed by other EU countries, with one significant exception. Apart from Modi’s growing political importance, the economic importance of Gujarat as a fast-growing economy had much to do with the about turn. Politics spoke, but economics showed the way.
The US, however, continued to prevaricate, perhaps hoping against hope that the United Progressive Alliance’s political fortunes would improve and that Modi would be upstaged by his rivals in the Bharatiya Janata Party. After the September 13 announcement by the BJP declaring Modi as its prime ministerial candidate and the Ahmedabad magistrate court’s exoneration of the chief minister in a case where he was sought to be implicated for ‘conspiracy’ in the killing of a former Congress member of parliament, there was no real reason for the US to cling to its 2005 decision. The state department in Washington was confronted with a choice: to be on the wrong side of the person who could well end up as prime minister in May 2014 or grudgingly admit its miscalculation and buy insurance.
When Modi and Powell meet in Gandhinagar, it is highly unlikely that either of them will utter the word ‘visa’. That issue will remain unaddressed but the larger message would have been clear: Modi will be treated as a ‘normal’ chief minister. And ‘normal’ chief ministers often have a habit of travelling abroad to ostensibly promote investments or, more likely, to interact with the large Indian diaspora.
Ideally, the UPA government should have reacted to the US initiative with a deadpan reaction. The visa issue and the unstated US boycott of Modi was, strictly speaking, an American problem, and Delhi had no role in the matter. Yet, Khurshid reacted to the Powell visit to Gujarat in a churlish and petulant way, quite unbecoming of India’s external affairs minister. According to a PTI report in a Mumbai newspaper, Khurshid said that “we are a country that believes in a Gandhian way of life, compassion (and) service without recognition, and none of these terms applies to Modi”. Barely concealing his intense disappointment at US overtures to Modi, he went on to say: “There are lot of things that they will not and we should not put behind. The holocaust is not put behind and if (the) holocaust is not put behind who are we to lecture them to say you put (the) holocaust behind?”
Apart from the sheer effrontery of comparing what happened in Gujarat in March 2002 to the mass murder of nearly six million Jews by the Nazis, Khurshid’s petulance was very revealing. It certainly appeared to confirm the suspicion that the US strictures against Modi had the tacit blessings of India’s own government — an astonishing case of seeking foreign help for an internal political battle. Secondly, Khurshid’s outburst has underlined the fact that the Congress loyalists don’t see the forthcoming general election as yet another democratic encounter where there will a winner and many losers. To them, a war against Modi is a no-holds-barred contest where normal rules of encounter don’t apply. In short, and this is becoming apparent in the last-ditch populist spending spree of the government: fearful of defeat, the Congress appears to be following a scorched earth policy. The aim is clear: deny Modi any worthwhile inheritance in May.
The irony is that the more the likes of Khurshid up the ante, the more is the yearning for a strong, decisive and no-nonsense leader. In the past fortnight, the Modi campaign is generating more and more momentum. His public meetings all over the country, including in places such as Calcutta, Imphal, Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram, where the BJP has nominal presence, are attracting huge crowds — so much so that they no longer make news. The bureaucracy, blessed with extra-sensitive antennae, has decided that change is in the offing and there is no point processing files and taking decisions. The arrival lobby of Ahmedabad airport has become a gathering point of notables awaiting a darshan of the man they think is going to be the next prime minister.
The change may or may not happen in the way the chattering classes of Delhi and the diplomatic circles are predicting. The final decision rests with the voters who have their own priorities. This is exactly as it should be in a healthy, competitive democracy. But the democratic traditions of India aren’t going to be strengthened if the incumbent administration acts on the assumption that all means — both fair and foul — are legitimate in the bid to stop Modi at all costs. The US volte face on Modi may well have been governed by cynical calculations and even business considerations. But it was also governed by the belief that a democratic decision has to be respected. Sadly, Western-educated intellectuals such as Khurshid lack that spirit of generosity and enlightenment.