This Friday, the world’s largest democracy will announce its election results. India’s slow motion balloting has been taking place over several weeks, in an exercise that is both a marvel of logistics and a compelling display of self-government in a stunningly diverse society. Most indications are that, after the votes are counted and the coalition negotiations wrapped up, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will emerge as India’s next prime minister.
Modi’s likely win also poses a challenge for American foreign policy. As Jim Mann, an author in residence at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, India "will probably elect as its next prime minister a politician who for nearly a decade has been prohibited from setting foot on U.S. soil." This stems from the 2005 decision by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to deny Modi a visa to visit the United States because of his role in the massacre of over 1,000 — and possibly over 2,000 — Muslims in Gujarat state in 2002. In her decision Rice concurred with the recommendation of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and invoked section 604 of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) which provides for visa denials of any foreign officials responsible for "particularly severe violations of religious freedom."
I have a personal perspective on this, having served as one of the Congressional staff authors of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, and then several years later having worked for Secretary Rice at the State Department. It is an interesting experience in governance and civics, to say the least, to participate in the writing of a bill at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and then later participate in the implementation of it at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue (or in this case the Foggy Bottom annex). At the time of drafting the bill in 1998, we could hardly have imagined that the only time the visa ban provision would be invoked would be against a chief minister of a state government in India. Suffice it to say that while working on State’s Policy Planning Staff in 2005, I supported the decision to ban Modi. I thought at the time, and still think, it was a fair and important step to take in response to some egregious acts of religious intolerance, of which the Gujarat massacres were the most visible and heinous. The visa ban also undercut the canard that the United States only advocates for persecuted Christians and helped demonstrate that American support for international religious freedom applies to all faiths, including solidarity with Muslims.
Visa bans have emerged in recent years as a favored tool of American foreign policy. The passage of the Magnitsky Act and now the Obama Administration and European Union’s blacklisting of certain Russian officials in the midst of the Ukraine crisis are current examples. At its best, a visa ban provides a calibrated and targeted way to advance a particular policy priority while minimizing collateral diplomatic damage. Other times a visa ban can be less effective, either as a poor alternative for more creative and robust policies or an empty symbolic gesture. To be most effective, visa bans should be one part of a comprehensive strategy, rather than a substitute for one.
In the case of India, I agree with Mann and many others that it is time to lift the visa ban on Modi. The reasons are several. Foremost is that India is one of the most important strategic relationships the United States has. After the stagnation and drift in U.S.-India ties of the last few years (for which the Singh Government and the Obama administration both bear responsibility), Modi’s likely election presents an opportunity for a fresh start in the relationship, especially if he follows through on his promised economic reforms and shares American concerns about responding to China’s regional assertiveness. Modi may not be the leader we want for India, but he will likely be the leader we get. Additionally, on the issue of religious toleration itself, the visa ban has outlived its effectiveness. Twelve years after the Gujarat massacres, there is little evidence that Modi’s continued blacklisting will do much to protect religious freedom in India.
But lifting the visa ban alone would be insufficient. The Obama administration should couple this with a series of other specific measures that show America’s willingness to work with Modi does not diminish our concern for religious freedom. While Modi has moderated some of his rhetoric, regrettably he seems to still embrace some of the more intolerant and toxic strains of Hindu nationalism. Many of India’s Muslims and Christians in particular fear that a Modi government could bring them increased discrimination and even persecution. The Obama administration should start communicating to India now its support for religious toleration, and should start developing specific policy initiatives to support religious freedom in India.
Unfortunately this is an administration that, notwithstanding a couple of speeches by President Obama and chief of staff Denis McDonough, has done regrettably little to promote religious liberty abroad. A good start would be heeding the calls of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla) and many others to appoint a new Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. This position has been unfilled since October, and has stood vacant for over half of the Obama administration’s entire tenure in office. If religious freedom doesn’t even have its chief advocate inside the State Department, it won’t have any priority in American foreign policy.