February 22, 2020
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Grass In The Wind

Britain and Modi, and how nations can’t bet on just one horse

Grass In The Wind
Illustration by Sorit
Grass In The Wind

The detente between the British high commission and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi has raised speculation on whether the US—which has denied him a visa since 2005 for alleged human rights violations—is also on the verge of relenting. While a debate on the validity of such action against a democratically elected leader in a pluralistic nation is perhaps anachronistic, this sudden switch is well worth examining. Strictly speaking, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office can argue that Modi has had a judicial reprieve and that a direct complicity is yet to be established. His lack of contrition, though troublesome, is outweighed by his rising profile as a possible BJP prime ministerial candidate. Discretion is, after all, the better part of valour.

The significance of this action, however, goes beyond the political fortunes of one player in a scenario complicated by the rising political vulnerability of the UPA government (corruption charges spreading to the very family of Sonia Gandhi) and the concomitant flexing of muscles by regional political satraps, who can themselves stake a claim for the PM’s seat. It’s no wonder then that India’s friends abroad have begun spreading their bets. This hedging is not new or specific to India. Our diplomats do the same in their countries of accreditation. As ambassador to Iran in 2005, just before the presidential elections, I recall the six names in play I had never met. Ahmadinejad, then Teheran mayor, was not a favourite. Even so, I sought an appointment and was received by him. After he surprised everyone by his showing in the first round, he was no longer receiving ambassadors.

In India, this has been a development more noticeable after the decline of the Congress and the emergence of regional leaders. One US ambassador used to recount how impressed he was with that then Bihar CM Laloo Yadav milked his cows (in the diplomat’s presence) before commencing on the day’s work. The attention of foreign visitors naturally shifts in response to the impending evolution in domestic politics. Sometimes it may herald a false start as was the case when Rahul Gandhi took the charismatic British foreign secretary David Miliband to his constituency Amethi in 2009 (before the Lok Sabha elections). Both then seemed headed for the top position in their respective countries.

Thus it was not surprising that US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited Chennai in 2011 to pay obeisance to J. Jayalalitha, and encourage the two major US companies in the state: Ford and Caterpillar. Compare this to US ambassador John K. Galbraith in Madras in 1961 to oversee a “poor feeding programme”. That India has changed was confirmed again by Hillary’s detour to Calcutta on May 7 this year to make the acquaintance of the mercurial Mamata Banerjee, besides marketing FDI in retail. Former US ambassador T. Roemer wooed Nitish Kumar as has Wendy R. Sherman, US under secretary for political affairs (equivalent to India’s foreign secretary), who visited Bihar last April to assess the CM’s views on economic issues.

Meanwhile, there is also a corresponding urgency among some regional leaders, a feeling that they need to burnish their credentials on foreign policy and national security issues. For Modi, the need now is for the visa issue to dissipate so that detractors within the BJP do not use it to thwart a possible nomination for the top post. Nitish is headed to Pakistan on November 9-16 on an invitation from the CM of Pakistani Punjab. Perhaps Nepal or Bangladesh, much closer neighbours, would have been a better bet. And even though Imran Khan claims to be a fan, wanting to repeat his formula of good governance and development, surely he doesn’t need to go to Pakistan to give a tutorial. He perhaps is looking at killing three birds with one stone: please his Muslim votebase, indicate a growing convergence with the Congress and score a halo of statesmanship. CM Akhilesh Yadav of Uttar Pradesh is headed to Melbourne to speak at a seminar with the rubric ‘Argumentative Indian’. His interest is understandable as he studied in Australia. Arun Jaitley and L.K. Advani were in New York, the former to speak at Columbia University and the latter at the UNGA, a task normally left to unknown MPs.

The two aspirants to the post of US president, Obama and Romney, will debate foreign policy on October 23 in their third and final debate. In India, the leaders of regional and national parties largely avoid taking specific positions on national security and foreign policy matters. On a TV programme I was on, the discussion had turned to whether or not aspirants to the PM’s position here should be made to debate domestic and international issues like in the US. They are now getting away with tourism masquerading as international experience, a visa as proof of international acceptability and a written speech as evidence of statesmanship.

(K.C. Singh is a former Indian ambassador to Iran)

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