SO it has come to this. The elected leader of the world’s largest democracy is ineligible for a visa to visit the world’s oldest democracy. Someone grab a defibrillator fast — the “defining partnership of the 21st century” is flat-lining.
Those in both countries rooting for the relationship to recover and prosper thought it had hit rock bottom with the arrest and detention of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade. But strip-searching a mid-level diplomat is nothing next to besmirching a head of government.
There is, of course, a bonafide moral case against granting Narendra Modi a US visa. Doing so would insult the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Whether Modi was complicit in their deaths or not, the US has already judged him a violator of religious freedom through its 2005 visa refusal. Overturning that refusal, absent significant new evidence absolving Modi, would be an additional injustice to the victims of 2002 and their families.
As a legal matter, Modi is as ineligible for a US visa today as he was nine years ago. But Modi is no longer a state-level leader, and the visa is no longer merely a moral or legal matter. The moment Modi became a serious candidate for national leadership, the visa became political .
And as a political matter affecting one of America’s most important bilateral relationships, it deserved the personal attention of US President Barack Obama himself.
The truth is that Obama could have avoided the Modi visa becoming yet another Indo-US irritant.
When Modi was declared his party’s prime ministerial candidate last September, Obama could have quietly issued a visa waiver. Story over, strategic partnership back on track.
Yet Obama has kept the visa ban in place, reaching out to Modi only to the extent of sending his ambassador to Gujarat to meet him in person.
Obama’s inaction on the visa is inexplicable. Did Obama’s respect and affection for Manmohan Singh deter a clear-headed presidential assessment of Modi’s potential importance to the US? Did Obama hope that Rahul Gandhi would somehow conjure up an electoral victory and thereby make the Modi visa issue disappear? If so Obama just wagered the health of the Indo-US relationship on the outcome of an election And lost.
So here we are with a newly elected and visa-less PM Modi. How long are American policymakers going to let this wound fester? Are they prepared to go years without reciprocal state visits? Prepared to watch old defence deals sour, and new ones go to the Russians?
Prepared to get a busy signal when they call South Block to “urge restraint” during a future flare-up along the Line of Control?
Even if the US were now to have a sudden change of heart on the visa issue, it may be too late. No one can blame a victorious PM Modi, having been shunned for years by the US, for not placing Indo-US relations at the top of his to-do list.
But there is hope, at least in the medium term, for real improvement in the relationship.
Fortunately, we are dealing with two democracies here. Just as India now has a new leader, in January 2017 the US will have a new president.
That new president, whatever his or her party, will likely seize on ties with Delhi as one of the main missed opportunities of the Obama presidency. Expect him or her to welcome Modi to Washington with open arms. In the meantime, an air that chills will continue to blow into the heart of Indo-US relationship.