The arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York, on December 12, for underpaying her former house maid and visa fraud may have overshadowed the longest-standing visa dispute between the United States and India. But in the wake of the current controversy, the Narendra Modi visa issue assumes even more significance.
In fact, ever since the Gujarat chief minister was elevated by the Bharatiya Janata Party as its virtual “shadow Prime Minister” back in September, India watchers in the United States have been obsessing over the ramifications of his victory in next year’s general elections for the India-US ties.
Now, with the BJP trouncing the ruling Congress Party in four state assembly elections earlier this month, the path to 7 Race Course Road seems clearer than ever before for Modi, whose name is linked to the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The controversial chief minister thrust himself into the arena of India-US bilateral relations when he applied for a diplomatic visa in 2005. The Department of State denied the visa petition on March 18, 2005, saying that he was “not coming for a purpose that qualified for a diplomatic visa.”
Simultaneously, it also revoked Modi’s visit visa that had been previously issued, citing a provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act that makes any foreign government official who “was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for a US visa.
It was the result of a sustained campaign by human rights activists and liberal critics of Modi over his role in the riots, which resulted in the loss of as many as 2,000 lives. The provision that revoked the chief minister’s visa was put in placeunder the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, and it was the only time a visa was denied to a foreign official under the International Religious Freedom Act.
“It is based on the fact that, as head of the State government in Gujarat between February 2002 and May 2002, he was responsible for the performance of state institutions at that time,” then US Ambassador to India David Mulford said in a statement on March 21, 2005.
Since then, the visa issue has been a cause celebre for both legions of Modi’s US supporters and equally passionate opponents in this country. The visa issue gained even more importance in recent years, as Modi — who is treated like a rock star among the influential Gujarati Americans and a section of the US business community that is disillusioned with the policies of the man the BJP leader is trying to unseat, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — became the public face of the BJP.
His supporters — among them, another former US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, who, incidentally, was the top American envoy in New Delhi during the carnage — have repeatedly pressed the administration to reverse its position on the visa issue.
They point out that despite charges leveled by the rights group, the chief minister was never charged in connection with the riots in India. His supporters also claim that the US action amount to disrespecting India’s sovereignty, an argument Modi himself made in response to visa denial.
Meanwhile, his opponents have also been no less vocal on the issue. So far they have succeeded in making sure that the administration has not bowed to the pressure exerted by the other side.
Two of the major Modi critics in Washington are Pennsylvania Republican Joseph Pitts and his GOP colleague from Virginia Frank Wolf. Both congressmen had traveled to Gujarat in the aftermath of the riots in 2002.
As Modi began projecting an aura of inevitability about his campaign to capture Delhi, the two congressmen introduced a resolution in the House calling for “the need to protect the rights and freedoms of religious minorities” in India.
Citing an Amnesty International Report released last year, the resolution said that even 10 years after the riots, “at least 21,000 survivors and relatives of the victims remained in 19 transit relief camps” in Gujarat.
Emboldened by all the momentum their leader has been gaining in recent months, groups backing Modi, which include the US-India Political Action Committee, have very aggressively countered the efforts to maintain status quo on the visa issue. As a result, one of the original co-sponsors of the resolution, Ohio Republican Steve Chabot, has removed his name as a co-sponsor. The powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce has also denounced the resolution.
In the meantime, the State Department seems to be preparing to engage with Modi, should he become the prime minister. The new Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal said recently that, while there is no change in US policy with regard to Modi, the Gujarat chief minister’s ascension as prime minister should not pose problems for the relations.
If Modi does become the prime minister, there is no question that he will be able to visit the United Sates, if he chooses to, for official visits such as representing India at the annual UN General Assembly summits, which world leaders routinely attend.
Over the decades, even some of the most virulent critics of the United States have visited New York for UN meets, a list that includes Fidel Castro to Hugo Chavez to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But the question is whether Modi will get an invitation to attend White House state dinner, similar to the one extended to Atal Bihari Vajpayee by George W Bush and to Manmohan Singh by President Obama. Probably not.