Engaging Modi the U.S. way

Confidential 2006 cable reveals complex calculations in the event of the Gujarat Chief Minister ‘making it to the national stage'; wants a clear message delivered on U.S. concerns over 'human rights and religious freedom'

Updated - November 22, 2021 06:55 pm IST

Published - March 22, 2011 03:55 am IST - CHENNAI

Facing the possibility of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi assuming a leadership role at the national level, the State Department sanctioned meetings in 2006 at the level of the Mumbai Consul General. File photo

Facing the possibility of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi assuming a leadership role at the national level, the State Department sanctioned meetings in 2006 at the level of the Mumbai Consul General. File photo

Having declined to engage with him at the ambassadorial level because of his role in the 2002 Gujarat communal violence and anti-Muslim pogrom, U.S. diplomats found themselves, in 2006, facing the possibility of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi assuming a leadership role at the national level. Conscious that the United States would have to deal with him at a later stage if he rose in stature on the national stage, the State Department evidently sanctioned meetings at the level of the Mumbai Consul General on the understanding that such interactions would also enable the U.S. to deliver a “clear message on human rights and religious freedom in Gujarat.”

In a cable dated November 2, 2006 ( > 84043: confidential ), the Consul General in Mumbai, Michael S. Owen, underscored the importance of interacting with Mr. Modi “whose B1/B2 visa we revoked in 2005, at the level of the Consul General” over the Chief Minister's role in the 2002 communal violence. Such interaction, Mr. Owen said, “will also shield us from accusations of opportunism from the BJP that would invariably arise if we ignored Modi now but sought a dialogue with him in the likely event that he makes it to the national stage.”

On the basis of discussions with leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Mumbai Consulate concluded that Mr. Modi had set his sights on national politics. Interestingly, many in the BJP leadership believed that the Gujarat Chief Minister was the “only person of the BJP's many aspiring leaders who can reinvigorate the party and stop its further slide into oblivion.”

While there was no consensus on Mr. Modi's chances for success at the national level, some in Delhi and Gujarat strongly felt that his rise was inevitable, Mr. Owen added.

The Mumbai Consulate's 2,850-word assessment, which was cleared by the New Delhi Embassy before being cabled to the State Department, was carefully considered, nuanced, and telling. The disquisition could well form the core of an M.A. thesis in politics:

“If Modi does eventually get a national leadership role in the BJP in the foreseeable future, the USG [United States Government] will be obliged to decide how it wants to deal with a figure of national prominence whose B1/B2 we revoked. We believe it would dilute our influence to avoid Modi completely. If we waited to engage Modi after he attains national stature within India's largest and most important opposition party, many in the BJP would likely view this as an opportunistic move and only deepen the suspicions cultivated by some BJP leaders in western India since the visa revocation.

“Since the riots of 2002, we have declined to engage Modi at the Ambassadorial level, but Mumbai Consul Generals have routinely sought meetings with Modi whenever they visited Ahmedabad. We will continue to seek such meetings at the level of the CG to emphasize that the USG does not have a formal no-contact policy… and to demonstrate to the BJP that we are interested in cultivating relationships with the party while it is in the opposition. Direct encounters with Modi will also enable us to deliver a clear message regarding USG concerns for the state of human rights and religious freedom in Gujarat.”

On Mr. Modi's strengths as Chief Minister that could aid his national leadership ambitions, Mr. Owen's analysis was: “Modi has successfully branded himself as a non-corrupt, effective administrator, as a facilitator of business in a state with a deep commercial culture, and as a no-nonsense, law-and-order politician who looks after the interests of the Hindu majority. Modi's backers in the BJP now hope to convince the party leadership that he can use these positive traits to attract voters throughout India. Some BJP leaders believe, or hope, that voters will forget or forgive Modi's role in the 2002 bloodshed, once they learn to appreciate his other qualities.”

Not ‘if' but ‘when’

The Consul General quoted Harin Pathak, a BJP Member of Parliament from Gujarat, as saying that the BJP national leadership, and particularly former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, were convinced that only Mr. Modi could rejuvenate the party. Ram Madhav of the RSS also voiced similar views, “going so far as to say that Modi's ascendancy is not a question of if but when, and the USG must start considering now how it will deal with Modi when he becomes head of the BJP and leads the party's electoral campaign in the national elections scheduled for 2009.”

Mr. Owen also drew attention to what he saw as divergence between Mr. Modi's public image and his private actions. “In public appearances, Modi can be charming and likeable. By all accounts, however, he is an insular, distrustful person who rules with a small group of advisors. This inner circle acts as a buffer between the Chief Minister and his cabinet and party. He reigns more by fear and intimidation than by inclusiveness and consensus, and is rude, condescending and often derogatory to even high level party officials. He hoards power and often leaves his ministers in the cold when making decisions that affect their portfolios.”

( This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileak s.)

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