The U.S. decision to end the boycott of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is part of a recognisable pattern of pragmatic State Department engagement with politicians or political groups it perceives as carrying heft on the national scene. Consider for instance how it swallowed its anathema toward the Muslim Brotherhood to engage with the group when it took power in Egypt; or its “outreach” to the Taliban in Afghanistan. There are many other examples from across the world. With India’s political churning ahead of the elections, it was only a matter of time before the U.S. decided to buy itself some insurance for any post-election possibilities. This is the context to Thursday’s meeting between U.S. Ambassador Nancy Powell and Mr. Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. The State Department holds that its 2005 decision to refuse him a visa remains unchanged. Mr. Modi’s then existing tourist/business visa was revoked under sections of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act that make any foreign government official who was “responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for a visa; his then proposed travel plan to the U.S. was declared “not for a purpose that qualified for a diplomatic visa”. The decision, three years after the riots, came when the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance was no longer in power at the Centre. It is clear that if Washington needs to reverse its stand on the visa question, it will do that too.
What this means is that Washington’s self-interest cannot be the yardstick with which to address an issue that goes to the heart of India’s nationhood. Mr. Modi has been absolved by an investigation team of any direct role in the Gujarat riots in which more than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed; the clean chit has been accepted by a trial court. But questions remain about his moral and political accountability for a pogrom that took place under his watch. These questions will not go away whatever the change in the U.S. position. Also, electoral victories clearly do not constitute a clean chit. The Congress has been re-elected many times since the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in which several of its leaders were alleged to be involved; it continues to be haunted by that dark episode. Citing Mr. Modi’s re-election three times since 2002 as the measure of people’s trust is much like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s defence that all the corruption charges against his government related to UPA-I and do not matter as the people entrusted the coalition with governance for another five years after that.