A few weeks ago, American cable television viewers had a moment of epiphany when British comedian and host of HBO’s ‘Last Week Tonight’ John Oliver lambasted them for their ignorance of the “biggest election in human history,” going on in India, whose results will be known on May 16.
While Mr. Oliver’s observations may hold true for a large segment of the U.S. media and its viewership, three broad constituencies in America are likely to be tracking the ongoing polls closely -- the Obama administration’s State Department, Trade Representative and Chambers of Commerce; private sector corporations engaged in bilateral trade and investment; and an eclectic constellation of human rights advocacy groups.
With an important component of the U.S.-India relationship at stake for each of these observers, they must all be pondering the same question: if, as numerous polls predict, Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP leader Narendra Modi becomes Prime Minister, what will that mean for the bilateral relationship?
For the economic wing of the Obama White House recent months of engagement with India have been bruising. Trade disputes in every sector from pharmaceuticals to solar panels have plagued the dialogue between Washington and New Delhi to the point where private frustrations have given way to public outpourings.
Last month the U.S. Trade Representative came perilously close -- although it ultimately desisted -- to labelling India a ‘priority foreign country’ in its Special 301 report on trading partners deploying discriminatory economic measures in international commerce. To describe the current status quo as one of deep disenchantment would not be an exaggeration.
U.S. businesses have had the wind knocked out of their sails by the stalled progress on the civil nuclear deal, the failed attempt to win a fighter jet contract, and are now fearful of losing market share owing to Indian courts’ backing of compulsory licensing measures.
These constituents are likely to be hoping that the new government that will take charge in New Delhi in the coming weeks will breathe fresh air into trade and investment reform in favour of a more accessible, less bureaucratically-stymied policy environment, attributes that are widely associated with Mr. Modi’s governance in his home state.
With regard to the U.S. State Department and India’s Ministry of External Affairs, some argue that l’affair Khobragade, the diplomatic crisis that engulfed ties between the since last December have led to more “realism” and a “reset” in the relationship.
Yet there is also a continuing sense of disappointment on both sides that the other party is speaking orthogonally -- whether in terms of India’s shock at having a top female diplomat strip-searched by U.S. Marshals or the American diplomatic establishment’s disbelief that security barriers around its Embassy in New Delhi were removed in retaliation -- and it is unclear to Washington whether some of the cultural elements embedded within such misunderstandings will disappear if Mr. Modi takes over.
A lengthy laundry list of politically difficult issues will ensure that certain measure of tension continues in the bilateral engagement, even with a dynamic Mr. Modi at the helm.
The U.S. Congress’ long-delayed passage of comprehensive immigration reform may impose debilitating costs on H-1B visa applicants, the majority being Indian IT majors, and partisan bickering in both the Senate and House of Representatives has led to many members of Congress, wary of mid-term elections in November, digging in their heels.
India has also not seen eye-to-eye with the U.S. in international forums, for example at the United Nations on Syria, Ukraine and Sri Lanka.
This election-year focus on domestic constituencies has also led to unexpected voices leveraging disproportionate influence on Capitol Hill and within the administration, and will affect one of the top issue in U.S.-India ties under Mr. Modi: his revoked visa.
In 2005 Mr. Modi applied for but was denied a “diplomatic visa” under 214(b) of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act and his existing tourist/business visa was revoked under Section 212 (a)(2)(g) of the Act.
Under the latter, foreign government officials are considered ineligible for a visa if the State Department views them as “responsible for, or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
Despite many prominent political and corporate leaders, including Chicago businessman Shallabh Kumar who led a delegation of Congressmen to meet Mr. Modi in Gujarat last year, petitioning for a reversal of this decision, no change in policy has happened until now owing in part to persistent counter-lobbying by groups such as the Coalition Against Genocide, the Indian American Muslim Council and the Congress-backed U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
These groups continue to be animated by concerns, no doubt exacerbated in recent months by the communal conflagrations in Muzaffarnagar and incendiary comments by Amit Shah and even Mr. Modi on Bengali Muslims as “infiltrators,” that ultra-conservative Hindutva elements, including from the RSS, may influence Mr. Modi’s political outlook when he is in power.
They have accordingly urged that religious freedom be included as a core element of the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue.
Yet there is little doubt in official or think-tank circles in Washington that only one outcome is possible in this regard: if Mr. Modi becomes Prime Minister, that fact by itself, independent of all allegations of his complicity in human rights violations, will necessarily require the State Department to allow him entry onto U.S. soil.
Last month a Congresssional report confirmed, “If Narendra Modi were to become Prime Minister of India, he would automatically be eligible for an A-1 (diplomatic) visa as head of state, regardless of the purpose of his visit.”
That they may acquire additional justification for this step based on the Indian Supreme Court’s ruling absolving him of complicity in the rioting will assuage some, but not all, voices of protest.