The US’s long history of being the champion of human rights, an advocacy that has led it to play a proactive role around the world, is well-known. What is perhaps equally well-known is its long history of dealing with dictators, autocrats and strongmen who violate those very rights. Often, the two opposing impulses—its ideology forcing it to safeguard fundamental rights and its pragmatism stemming from “what serves national interest best”—have posed serious challenges for its foreign policy. It faces a similar challenge today from Gujarat’s controversial chief minister and BJP leader Narendra Modi.
For nearly a decade, Modi has both appalled and fascinated US politicians, diplomats, businessmen and scholars. Aware of his alleged role in ’02 for masterminding a pogrom against Muslims in which more than two thousand innocent people were killed, the US government revoked his visa in 2005. The Gujarat CM earned the distinction of being the only elected Indian leader to be barred from entering the US. But as a three-time chief minister, with the possibility of winning a fourth consecutive term in office, Modi has also caught the attention of the Americans with all the talk about him transforming his state into an economic dynamo. Under his helmsmanship, Gujarat has been attracting investments from across the world and succeeding in showcasing itself as a destination for business and economic growth.
So, is the US seriously pondering over the (very practical) question of how to deal with Modi?
Two profiles of the Gujarat chief minister—one on the cover of Time magazine, the other on the Brookings Institution blog—seem to suggest so. Both profiles have generated a heated debate both in India and elsewhere. His supporters see it as a “long overdue” recognition in US, while his detractors regard it as the handiwork of his PR agency and lobby firm to refurbish his image.
“How long can you go on boycotting him?” asks former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh, by way of explaining the dilemma before the US over Modi. He says the profiles reflect the “pragmatism of the American business community”.
Among Modi’s admirers are rich Gujarati businessmen in the US who can’t be ignored in a presidential election year.
It is true that the US travel ban has not stopped Modi from touring other countries. Over the past few years, he has been to China, Japan and the European Union, where he has been routinely feted by their leaders and where he offers Gujarat as an attractive investment destination. US energy giant Westinghouse has plans to set up nuclear reactors in Gujarat, and American diplomats from the Mumbai consulate have already been in touch with the CM. Among his admirers are rich Gujarati businessmen in the US who, in a presidential election year, cannot be ignored either.
But Modi’s rising stocks in the US may not be linked only to Gujarat: many American commentators have started regarding him as the future face of India and probably its next prime minister.
“But when others think of someone who can bring India out of the mire of chronic corruption and inefficiency, of a firm, no-nonsense leader who will set the nation on a course of development that might finally put it on a par with China, they look at Modi,” says the Time (Asia edition) cover story, titled Modi means business, but can he lead India?
The Brookings blog has an equally intriguing title—India’s most admired and most feared politician: Narendra Modi, and though it talks about his role in the massacre of the Muslims in Gujarat, it heaps lavish praise on him for Gujarat’s economic success.
The Indian American Muslim Council of the US sees it as an attempt by Modi’s PR and lobbying firm, APCO Worldwide, to “whitewash” his image in the West. “It’s unfortunate that reputed institutions like Brookings and Time seem to be playing into the hands of APCO propaganda,” Shaheen Khateeb, the Council’s president, told Outlook.
The US fascination with Modi is not new; it has been there for some years. In April 2009, The Atlantic ran a story on Modi, hinting that he could well be the next PM, while last September the US Congressional Research Service report described Modi’s Gujarat as the “best example of effective governance and impressive development” in India. But the communal taint continues to haunt Modi, as was evident during during Wednesday’s US congressional hearing on challenges facing minorities in India, where sections argued in favour of continuing the travel ban on the Gujarat chief minister.
However, with the Congress in disarray and possible new players coming on the scene, there is a growing need in the US to know them. William Antholis of Brookings, who wrote the blog on Modi as part of a series of profiles of new Indian leaders, says, “I am not advocating for Modi or Chavan or Nitish or Jayalalitha” or assessing whether they should be PM. “I am telling American policymakers that they should pay attention to these leaders and what is happening in the states,” Antholis told Outlook.
Gujarat’s Narendra Modi definitely has a headstart over other leaders. Whether he becomes the next PM or plays a key role in the next government in New Delhi are important questions for the US. But before soon, they may have to decide how to engage with Modi.