December 9, 2013: In the tremendous buzz that has attended Narendra Modi’s emergence as the BJP’s candidate for prime minister in India’s 2014 elections, foreign policy has been almost entirely absent. Modi’s rare foreign policy statements suggest that his approach will center on economics, India’s cultural heritage, and a tough regional policy. It’s too early to tell what this is likely to mean in practice.
For the United States, a Modi victory would bring pluses and minuses in terms of his policies. But regardless of the outcome of the national election, the U.S. cannot afford to continue restricting its contacts with a politician of Modi’s importance to a relatively low level.
The BJP’s strong showing in state elections in India in December 2013 has intensified speculation that there might be a change in the central government following the national polls expected in mid-2014. This article will not provide a prediction – many scenarios are still possible, and there are still some five long months to go before the voters make the decision. But it is worth looking more closely at what a Modi-led BJP government, if it does take office, might mean on the international scene.
The experience of the last two decades suggests that there is less difference than might be expected between Congress and BJP-led coalitions. Both participated in the creation of India’s post-Cold War international profile, including its much expanded ties with the United States. The much enhanced role of India’s economic growth as a driver of its international presence has been publicly embraced by both BJP and Congress leaders. India’s “Look East” policy has both parties’ fingerprints on it. Foreign policy speeches by BJP leaders have spoken favorably of India’s increasing engagement with Japan and Southeast Asia. Both sides of the aisle also regard India’s engagement with Iran as strategically important.
In the two areas where there is a discernible party difference, the contrast has been muted. The BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee ordered the 1998 nuclear weapons test – but the Congress government that followed him stoutly defended India’s nuclear status. It is hard to imagine any government reversing this position. Similarly, senior BJP foreign policy spokesmen, when asked what distinguishes their foreign policy from that of their opponents, have generally argued that the BJP is more insistent on maintaining India’s position in the region, especially with respect to Pakistan and China. At the same time, it was under Vajpayee that India and Pakistan concluded a cease-fire along the Line of Control and launched a composite dialogue.
How might a hypothetical Modi government be different? His foreign policy speech in Chennai on October 18 provides a few clues. He certainly stands by the two issues that have distinguished BJP foreign policy in the past. He praised Vajpayee’s decision to conduct an explicitly military nuclear test in 1998, but also lauded Vajpayee’s public declaration of a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, striking a “balance” between strength and peace. This formulation, of course, says little about where the balance might be struck in an uncertain future. A separate statement by Modi in December 2012 reinforces the expected tough message on Pakistan: he rejected any kind of compromise on the long-standing dispute over the coastal border in Sir Creek, where Modi’s state of Gujarat faces Pakistan. What no one knows, and what Modi understandably did not attempt to showcase at this early stage of the campaign, is whether he would highlight the tough side of his policy or present the kind of policy surprise created by Vajpayee in his first stint as foreign minister, or by Nixon in his opening to China.
The way Modi expressed his encomiums for Vajpayee’s balance – between “shakti and shanti,” the Sanskrit terms for power and peace – is a clear appeal to India’s cultural heritage, and specifically to the Hindu heritage that is central to the core ideology of his party. The strength of Indian culture is a point of pride across the political spectrum, but coming from Modi’s BJP, this emphasis delivers a message more domestic than foreign. It could have foreign ramifications, however. In his October speech, Modi commented that India’s concern for non-resident Indians should also extend to Sri Lanka’s Tamil population, whose families have lived in Sri Lanka for at least a century and in many cases far longer.
The most important message in Modi’s October speech was the centrality of economics in his thinking about foreign policy. He addressed this theme at greater length and in greater detail than any of the others, exhorting India to increase exports, build its future on its strong information technology sector, and turn the dangers of global climate change into a business opportunity for India’s entrepreneurs. He showcased India’s talented migrant labor – “doctors, nurses, teachers” – and its innovation as the heart of India’s “soft power” in a more prosperous future. Here, Modi was building on his record as leader of one of India’s fastest growing states. The level of detail suggests that this part of the international agenda is where his passion lies.
Modi’s October foreign policy speech said little about specific countries, other than a few remarks about Sri Lanka and Pakistan and a criticism of the naivete of India’s earlier policy toward China. Writing in Washington, it is interesting to look on the impact a possible Modi government might have on relations with the United States.
From the policy perspective, the good news is his emphasis on enhancing India’s economic performance and ensuring that a welcome mat is out for business. The U.S. economic agenda in India has moved more slowly than other areas of U.S.-India ties, especially during the second Congress government, and a strong economic and business relationship almost invariably builds up political ties as well. Relations with Pakistan are at best a question mark from the U.S. perspective. If Modi followed his economic logic and pursued the currently stalled economic opening between the two neighbors, this could put them on a more constructive path. On the other hand, a bombing or other incident could bring out the tough side of policy. There are plenty of spoilers around who might produce such a scenario.
The issue that is generating the most speculation now, however, is not foreign policy but Modi’s lack of senior level contact with the United States government. The United States revoked Chief Minister Modi’s visa in 2005 under a recent and rarely used provision of law, Section 212 (a) (2) (G) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. This provision holds that “any alien who, while serving as a foreign government official, was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom, as defined in section 3 of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (22 U.S.C. 6402), is inadmissible.” The event that led to this action was the 2002 massacre of Muslims in the state of Gujarat, where Modi was Chief Minister and in charge of the state’s administrative apparatus. The definition of “particularly severe” includes “flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty or security of persons.” The regulations implementing the law require consular officers to refer the case to Washington for an “advisory opinion,” which in “visa-speak” means a decision.
Despite the draconian language of the legislation, the technical visa issue is unlikely to be an issue if Mr. Modi became prime minister. There is a provision for waiving the “inadmissibility,” and while no waiver has been granted in the past eight years, one can anticipate that it would be in the event a sitting prime minister wished to travel to the U.S. officially. Indeed, one can already see the groundwork being laid for a potential shift. Support for a proposed (nonbinding) Congressional resolution that would applaud the administration’s visa denial is apparently starting to ebb in the wake of Modi’s standing as the BJP’s candidate for prime minister.
The more relevant problem, however, is that the United States has also limited its official contact with Modi, even after the ambassadors of other major powers had opened dialogues with him. He has met with the Consul General in Mumbai, whose district includes his home state, but not the top levels of the embassy. Controversy about the nature and level of contacts with opposition figures is not unusual in the diplomatic world. Normal U.S. practice is to maintain contact across the political spectrum, unless there is some overwhelming reason not to – members of listed terrorist organizations, for example. Unfortunately, the longer a self-imposed ban remains in place, the more complicated and embarrassing it is to change it.
The United States government has negotiated with Iran, whose leaders’ record on religious freedom and other human rights is completely at variance with U.S. values. It deals with both governments and opposition politicians around the world in spite of severe objections to their record. Talking to a senior political figure does not equate to agreeing with his views or approving his prior record. This time next year, Modi may or may not be India’s prime minister, but he will still be an important national leader in a country with which the United States boasts “one of the defining relationships of the 21st Century.” It needs to establish communications.
Teresita and Howard Schaffer