October 22: with British High Commissioner to India James Bevan at Gandhinagar, in Ahmedabad.
Gujarat
The British did it first. And a 10-year old boycott of Narendra Modi by the European Union is also coming to a grinding halt

A 10-year old boycott of Narendra Modi by the European Union is coming to a grinding halt. Some of the EU members have already reached out to the Gujarat chief minister, while many others, are desperately looking for face-savers that would also allow them to engage with Modi. Several reasons are being cited by the EU members for changing their stand on Modi that ranges from respect for Indian judicial system, staying away from internal politics and expanding the respective countries’ diplomatic footprint in India. But the fact remains that the Gujarat chief minister is no longer the pariah he used to be to the western governments for nearly a decade.

The boycott of the 27-member European Union was an informal agreement among its ambassadors in Delhi taken in the wake of the Godhra riots in 2002. Modi, widely accused of engineering the riots in which large number of Muslims in Gujarat were killed after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was attacked by miscreants at Godhra, was seen as the main culprit by the European ambassadors. To uphold human rights values, the members of the EU had taken an unanimous decision not to have any truck with the Gujarat chief minister and his cabinet. Though no resolutions were passed and it was more of a “gentlemen’s agreement”—the boycott of Modi and his government, stayed.

The boycott was reiterated yet again, in 2008. As a result of this, Modi’s travel plans to the West was severely hampered and despite several invitations from his supporters in the United States, United Kingdom or other European countries, the Gujarat chief minister never formally applied for a visit to visit any of these countries. But now this position is being revisited by the EU ambassadors and many of them are raising serious questions on whether there is any justification of maintaining the boycott on Modi.

“We can well understand the grief of the people affected by the communal riots,” says Gustavo de Aristegui, Spanish ambassador to India. “But after 10 years no clear link has been established between Narendra Modi and the riots,” he adds.

Expressing respect for the Indian political system Aristegui points out that “political battles” are legitimate part of any democratic set up but no “outsider” has the right to interfere with it or the judicial process in the country.

It is true that despite strong beliefs and accusations in sections in India about Modi’s involvement in the Gujarat riots, the Indian courts have so far found nothing to link him to the carnage in the state. But this is not the only reason that has made many of key members in the West, including the EU ambassadors, to relook at Modi.

The Gujarat chief minister’s success in gaining the confidence and trust of leading Indian business and industrial houses by projecting his state as an investment- friendly destination and himself as a strong leader who encourages business friendly atmosphere, has also led many of the foreign missions to re-think their strategy on Modi. Though the Americans have not yet reached out to him directly, there are reports of informal contacts between the two sides. Such moves are also backed by serious attempts last year to refurbish Modi’s image in the US media.

Some EU ambassadors, namely the Swedish and the Danes had already reached out to Modi by sharing platforms with him for business and investment in Gujarat in 2011. But it was the British high commissioner James Bevan who formally broke the ice and started the process of ending the EU boycott of Modi when he visited the state and had a hour-long meeting with the Gujarat chief minister. The import of the British decision was not lost on Modi who had then tweeted after his meeting with Bevan—“had a great meeting …. to strengthen Guj-UK ties in economic and social sectors.”

Under attack from various quarters for breaking rank with the EU, Bevan had clarified that UK was engaging with Gujarat and not any individual. “I don’t agree with the view that we are rehabilitating Narendra Modi, this engagement is not an endorsement,” the British high commissioner had said. 

But his decision has sparked off a debate among the EU ambassadors on how to deal with Modi after 10 years. Some countries like Belgium and Holland took the initiative of resuming discussion on this controversial topic after the UK decision.

“France does not, as a principle, wish to interfere in India’s domestic affair,” says French ambassador, Francois Richier. Maintaining ambiguity in his stand he adds, “The friendship and strategic partnership between France and India is well above evolutions in domestic politics of either state.”

But EU diplomats point out that the stand taken by the Europeans in 2002 is no longer valid or tenable in 2012 because of the changes in the political scenario in India. They point out that in order to do business in India where regional players are exceedingly becoming important because of the coalition nature of the country’s polity, has forced them to re-look at their stand on many of the chief ministers. It is not only Modi, they point out, but many others like Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal, Nitish Kumar of Bihar or Akhilesh Yadav in UP, are all in the list of emerging players of India with whom they want to build up a political or diplomatic equation.

However, while this argument makes sense it is also a fact that there was no other chief minister against whom the EU had imposed a ban. Therefore, while engagement with other regional players has been reported on, it is the attempt to reach out to Modi that has created a stir. The fact that he could well become the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the next Lok Sabha elections has only added weight to the Europeans’ attempt to reach out to Modi.

“We want to do business with India, in India but what we do not want to do is to interfere in an ongoing election campaign,” says German ambassador Michael Steiner. “We will cross the bridge when we come to it,” he adds. The indications were already clear that while some of the EU members had already started reaching out to Modi, others were waiting for the Gujarat elections to be over. After his convincing victory, there is no doubt that many senior western diplomats will make a beeline for the Gujarat chief minister who will then be seen as a major player in the emerging political scenario in India.

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