A series of elections in India last week have exposed a major diplomatic problem for the U.S. State Department: The man expected to lead the world’s largest democracy in 2014 is not legally allowed to enter the United States. The reason: his involvement in anti-Muslim riots that killed more than 1,000 people. The travel restriction is insulting to many Indians and threatens future U.S.-India relations, but the State Department has few workable options, if any.
On Sunday, India’s Hindu nationalist opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), trounced the ruling Congress in a number of key state assembly polls. Pollsters say the BJP is now widely expected to win next year’s general election, which would make the party’s controversial prime ministerial nominee, Narendra Modi, the next leader of India. The State Department won’t say whether a Prime Minister Modi would be allowed entrance to the United States, but experts say the question looms large over the U.S.-India relationship.
"I am not going to speculate about what the outcome might be," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told The Cable. At the same time, U.S. activists tell us they will challenge Modi in court if he ever sets foot in America.
Modi, the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, is a popular politician with a disturbing track record of intolerance. The United States denied him a diplomatic visa in 2005 and revoked his existing business visa due to his role in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat in which some 1,000 people — mostly Muslims — were killed. Modi stood accused of stoking religious violence and failing to protect Gujarat’s Muslim minority as chief minister. A subsequent resolution passed by Congress condemned him for promoting Nazi ideology and "racial hatred."
Modi supporters point out that a special investigative team appointed by India’s Supreme Court cleared him of any wrongdoing in the riots and emphasize his role in making Gujarat one of India’s fastest-growing economic success stories.
But U.S. officials saw little risk in blacklisting an obscure and provincial Indian politician back in 2005. At the time, Foggy Bottom revoked his visa under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which makes foreign officials who are responsible for "serious" violations of religious freedom ineligible for travel to America. Now Modi is a national political juggernaut whom the United States ignores at its peril.
"If he becomes prime minister, the U.S. will have to find a way to do business with him," Tanvi Madan, director of the Brookings Institution’s India Project, told The Cable. "The question is whether or not to do something before next year’s election."
Both options present risks.
If the United States continues to restrict Modi’s travel and freeze him out of diplomatic discussions at the ambassadorial level, it risks alienating an important partner on everything from trade to security to finance to diaspora issues. By contrast, the European Union, Britain, and Germany have all engaged in ambassador-level discussions with Modi. This status quo also risks insulting hundreds of millions of Indians.
"The travel restriction has created resentment amongst the leadership and some amongst the rank-and-file BJP party workers," said Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "We’re talking about a three-time incumbent chief minister. He hasn’t been found guilty by any court of law, he’s not under indictment for any crime, and there hasn’t been a smoking gun in their view. So how can you, the United States, prevent this guy from coming to your country?"
But not everyone agrees with the BJP’s interpretation of history. There is currently a trench war playing out on Capitol Hill over Modi’s legacy. Anti-Modi groups, such as the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), promise to name and shame anyone supportive of Modi, whom they consider a genocidal Hindu supremacist. IAMC has hired the lobbying firm Fidelis to advance its goals on the Hill, including a resolution critical of violations of minority groups in India that was introduced by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA).
The Cable has learned that anti-Modi groups are also planning a legal challenge against the chief minister should he ever travel to the United States. "Some of us are working with the next of kin of victims of the Gujarat 2002 violence living in the United States," Shaik Ubaid, founder of the Coalition Against Genocide, said. "We will be ready to file criminal and tort cases against Modi should he try to come to the United States."
Pro-Modi groups, such as the Hindu American Foundation, have accused these anti-Modi groups of slandering the reputation of India and its leaders. "It is certainly disappointing to see Indian- Americans hiring an American lobbying firm to advocate for a deeply flawed and insulting American resolution critical of India," said the Hindu American Foundation‘s Jay Kansara.
The pro-Modi camp has courted high-profile Republican lawmakers such as Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Rep. Aaron Schock, but to varying degrees of success. After heaping effusive praise on Modi following a 2013 visit to Gujarat, McMorris Rodgers denied association with him in November after anti-genocide groups complained about an invite for Modi to talk to Republican leaders on Capitol Hill via video link. "They don’t have a relationship," a congressional aide told The Cable.
Technically, it would not be difficult for Foggy Bottom to resolve Modi’s travel status. Although the department originally determined that Modi was ineligible for travel under the Immigration and Nationality Act, it’s not bound by that earlier decision.
"Our long-standing policy with regard to the chief minister is that he is welcome to apply for a visa and await a review like any other applicant," Harf told The Cable. "That review will be grounded in U.S. law."
However, Modi is unlikely to reapply for a visa between now and the 2014 elections.
Alternatively, the United States could implement a half-measure, such as issuing a statement that clarifies that America would never bar the leader of India from entering the country. But even that poses problems.
"Friends at the State Department say they’re hyperaware of this issue but constrained because of the elections," said Vaishnav. "They don’t want to be seen as endorsing a candidate or meddling in Indian politics. The State Department doesn’t want to be on the front page of Indian newspapers."
Madan agrees. "Any sign of foreign interference would be taken extremely negatively in India," she said. "The Congress party would latch onto that, saying the U.S. has endorsed Modi."
By and large, Foggy Bottom is boxed in on the issue. "There is little doubt that this poses a dilemma for the State Department," said Madan. "Modi is a major figure in Indian politics. It’s impossible to imagine that they hav
en’t thought through the various scenarios, but it’s unclear what they’ll do."