When Modi was denied the visa

UPA government, having “gone through the motions” by protesting, was “unlikely to ratchet up the pressure further”; Modi's “America bashing has made many” in the Congress and the BJP “nervous”

March 22, 2011 02:04 am | Updated November 22, 2021 06:55 pm IST - CHENNAI

The Ministry of External Affairs made a pitch for restoring Narendra Modi's U.S. visa. Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

The Ministry of External Affairs made a pitch for restoring Narendra Modi's U.S. visa. Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

Sometimes, diplomacy is more about keeping up appearances than about achieving concrete results.

After India urged the United States in March 2005 to reconsider its decision to revoke the visa of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the U.S. Embassy made an action request to Washington seeking a “review” of the case. However, the ‘action request' cable of March 18, 2005 ( > 29140: confidential ) also had a revealing accompanying note: “Post does not expect any change, but would appreciate a cable telling the GOI [Government of India] we took a fresh look and decided to maintain our decision.”

Grave concern

The cable was sent by the New Delhi Embassy under the name of Ambassador David Mulford after India's Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran called the Deputy Chief of Mission in the Embassy, Robert O. Blake, to his office on March 18, 2005 to express India's “grave concern” over the revocation of Mr. Modi's visa.

Evidently, the Embassy's only interest in sending the ‘action request' cable to the State Department was the diplomatic and political necessity of responding to Mr. Saran on March 19, 2005, the day Mr. Modi was to travel to the United States.

During the meeting with Mr. Blake, Mr. Saran characterised the U.S. decision on Mr. Modi's visa as “uncalled for” and as a display of a “lack of courtesy and sensitivity.” The Foreign Secretary conveyed that the refusal had already “incited a controversy and threatened to spark just the kind of divisiveness the US alleges Modi himself facilitated.”

Reporting on the meeting, the confidential cable said: “Saran argued to the DCM that the USG [United States Government] had made a decision based on opinion, an opinion that even some in India hold. That opinion, however, is a separate issue from the fact that Modi is a constitutionally-mandated office holder whose position derives from the people. Saran argued that the US as a democracy would appreciate this, and argued that the dignity of the office of Chief Minister cannot be overridden. Calling the USG determination that Modi had failed to act in Gujarat during the 2002 riots a ‘subjective judgment,' Saran suggested that perhaps Washington had not considered that this was a separate issue in the Indian mind.”

While appreciating the importance that the United States government attached to religious freedom, Mr. Saran cautioned that this determination could have an effect opposite from that intended: “a strong emotional reaction which had the potential to polarise the Indian people.” This, he noted, would not be in the interest of religious harmony, or shared U.S. and Indian objectives.

Highlighting the political ramifications, Mr. Saran said the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was “up in arms.” The incident, he added, might “open up an odd type of standard to give or not give visas.”

On his part, Mr. Blake explained to Mr. Saran the two parts of the U.S. decision – the refusal of the A2, and the revocation of the B1/B2, “highlighting that we had acted in accordance with our own law and democratic constitution.” The U.S., he told the Foreign Secretary, had taken into consideration independent reports, including that of India's own National Human Rights Commission. “The decision was not taken capriciously, but involved many people in Washington.”

‘Position deteriorating’

Another cable sent three days later ( > 29231: confidential ), also under the name of Ambassador Mulford, reported that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, after having “gone through the motions” by protesting the U.S. decision, was “unlikely to ratchet up the pressure further.”

The New Delhi Embassy's reading of the situation, even if it was arguable on Mr. Modi's “position deteriorating” in the national leadership stakes, must have reassured the State Department: “Congress has long viewed Modi as a vulnerable target and will, at the appropriate time, use the visa incident as further ammunition against him. Both Congress and the BJP particularly value the US-India relationship and Modi's America bashing has made many nervous. Both parties will likely move to ensure that the negative impact on the relationship from this incident is minimal. With Modi's position deteriorating, the BJP leadership could decide to quietly push him aside at the appropriate time. This could become a further liability for [BJP president L.K.] Advani, who [was] the senior party leader most visibly supporting Modi.”

The Embassy cable also reported that in private conversations with American diplomats, “Indians have expressed overwhelming support for the US decision.” Initial shock at the denial was now turning to embarrassment and “Modi harmed himself by making vitriolic anti-American statements that are not resonating well.” One former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, the cable said, told DCM that “Ninety five percent of India stands with you.”

( 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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