NEW YORK CITY: Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia has been widely praised. But many critics wish that he would infuse the policy with greater substance and energy. In fact, the administration has the opportunity to fill in one of the great missing pieces of that policy—a strategic relationship with the continent’s second largest country, India —once a new government emerges in New Delhi. But it will require both countries to make some major changes.
The immediate obstacle for the United States is that the man most likely to become India’s next prime minister, Narendra Modi, was placed on a blacklist of sorts by the George W. Bush administration, was denied a visa to enter America, and has been shunned by US officials for a decade. This ostracism should stop, whether Modi wins or loses (and becomes leader of the opposition). Singling out Modi in this manner has been selective, arbitrary and excessive.
Modi, a Hindu nationalist politician, is head of the government in the Indian state of Gujarat. He held that job in 2002 when fierce rioting between Hindus and Muslims broke out. In that capacity, it is alleged, he encouraged—or did nothing to stop—vigilante violence against Muslims and police complicity with the violence. One-thousand people, almost all of them Muslims, died. Subsequent prosecutions of those accused of killing Muslims have been minimal.
It is a dark episode in India’s history and Modi comes out of it tainted as the head of the state government at the time. But his actual role remains unclear. Three Indian investigations have cleared him of specific culpability, though the probes have been criticized by human rights groups, with credible concerns.
This is an important challenge for Indian democracy—one that many vocal groups in civil society are taking up—but the question for America is: Does Modi’s behavior rise to the level that it should trump national interest concerns? He is the only person ever to have been denied a visa on grounds of “severe violations of religious freedom,” which makes the decision look utterly arbitrary.
Consider, for example, the case of Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister of Iraq. He heads a government that is deeply sectarian, has been accused of involvement with death squads, reprisal killings, and the systematic persecution of Sunnis in his country. And yet, far from being shunned, Maliki has been received in Washington as an honored guest on many occasions by two American administrations.
Consider the reports of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the very body that singled out Modi. It lists countries “of particular concern” for their oppression of religious minorities. Saudi Arabia, a country whose leaders are paid enormous respect by Washington, is in the top tier. Pakistan is named the “worst situation” in the second group, for its persistent violence against minorities, which the report tells us is at an all-time high. Iraq is also in this group. Not a single government official from any of these countries—or any other country anywhere —has ever been placed on a blacklist or denied a visa for violating religious freedom. When human rights issues are used in a blatantly selective manner, they rightly invite charges of hypocrisy.
In this case, as often happens, US foreign policy is guilty more of incoherence than conspiracy. The commission was created in 1998 and was eager to demonstrate that it was not going to focus exclusively on violence against Christians. The Gujarat riots took place soon after and their brutality—and the seeming complicity of state authorities—attracted global attention. Hearings were held and the process resulted in the blacklist and ban. No one at a high level in the Bush administration paid any attention because Modi was a regional official, unlikely to ever ascend to national office.
If the United States can shift policy on this matter, Modi will have to get over his irritation with America. More important, he will have to shift his country’s posture on a much larger series of issues. For several years now, Indian foreign policy has been adrift, so much so that the country has almost disappeared as a serious player in the region and the world.
This is partly because India’s previous government ran out of steam, muddling along on every front, domestic and foreign. But it is also because New Delhi’s ruling elites remain ambivalent about the kind of foreign policy they should conduct, trapped between their old, Third-World, anti-colonial impulses and the obvious requirements of a new Asia in which China is emerging as the dominant power. The result is that India has shied away from the kind of robust relationship with the United States that would help it economically, militarily and politically.
If the United States and India, the world’s oldest and largest democracies, can create a genuine partnership, it will be good for Asian stability, for global prosperity and, most especially, for the cause of democracy and human rights around the world.
© 2014, THE WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP