As India prepares to hold national elections in the spring of 2014, the United States finds itself in a peculiar position regarding its relationship with the emerging Asian power. Instead of laying the groundwork to build on what will be the largest exercise of democracy in history, the United States is on unsure footing, strangely uncertain about the future of the relationship.
The primary cause of this seeming indifference? None other than Narendra Modi, the current chief minister of Gujurat and the prime ministerial candidate of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). To believe most current polls in India, the BJP will emerge victorious over the incumbent Congress Party, thereby forming a coalition to install Modi as prime minister. Such a development would be another peaceful transition of power for India, in a region that has too often lacked them.
For the United States, however, seeing Modi as prime minister would cause a good deal of angst and present an enormous dilemma. Having revoked Modi's visa to visit the United States in 2005 because of his alleged complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots, the United States now faces the prospect of being estranged from the most powerful person in India.
The decision to revoke Modi's visa was (and still is) hugely controversial in India. Modi's culpability in the deadly riots may never be fully known, as accounts of his involvement conflict. By revoking his visa, however, the United States has fashioned itself as prosecutor, jury, and judge in an unresolved domestic Indian issue, thereby offending India's sense of national sovereignty.
Add in the perceived hypocrisy of welcoming the leaders of known human rights violators such as China and Russia, and you can begin to understand the hole into which the United States has unwittingly dug itself.
As problematic as this situation has become, the United States has bigger troubles in its relations with India than Modi. The political estrangement inexplicably extends to the whole of the BJP. Over the past ten years, while the BJP has languished in the opposition, the United States has let its relationship with the party atrophy almost to the point of non-existence.
Since 2004, the U.S. government and the BJP have had only one major interaction, a clumsily-handled set of meetings in 2007 and 2008, when the United States was publicly advocating approval of the civil nuclear deal in the Indian parliament. Even President Obama met only with Lok Sabha Opposition Leader Sushma Swaraj during his visit to India in 2010, bypassing meetings with the more senior BJP leaders who would be his natural counterparts.
Such treatment of the opposition is clearly shortsighted. In any democracy, political fortunes can change overnight, and leaders can be thrust into power unexpectedly. Just look at current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was a government technocrat before assuming office in 2004. Common-sense diplomacy dictates that relationships with all prominent political parties and leaders need to be maintained, a lesson that the United States seems to have forgotten in India.
In addition, shunning the BJP ignores the rich history between the party and the United States. After all, it was the BJP that embraced President Clinton in 2000 on the first presidential visit to India in 22 years. It was former BJP Prime Minister Atal B. Vajpayee who was welcomed for a historic address to the U.S. Congress later that same year. And it was the BJP that inaugurated a new strategic partnership with the United States, a partnership that has since thrived so successfully.
The irony is that a BJP government probably represents the best possible outcome from the perspective of the United States. A lack of trust has pervaded relations between the United States and the Congress party since the fallout over the December arrest and strip search of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, an incident in which both sides behaved dishonorably. Should it come to power, the BJP would have an opportunity to build goodwill simply by re-setting the relationship to where it was only three months ago.
Mind the gap
Despite all these issues, it is not too late for the United States to repair ties. To begin, the United States will need to reach out to the BJP with some targeted strategic engagement. U.S. Ambassador Nancy Powell's February 13 meeting with Modi was a good initial step, but it is not nearly enough.
With the State Department and the BJP having had no significant interactions in several years, the United States most likely has little insight into the BJP's objectives for the country and for U.S.-India relations, a glaring gap in knowledge. Furthermore, the lack of recent engagement suggests that Washington officials have not developed the party relationships necessary for sustained interactions based on trust and understanding. The United States should remedy this situation as soon as possible to avoid any unwelcome surprises.
In addition, the U.S. government needs to reform its untenable visa position on Modi. To this day, the United States says only that Modi is welcome to submit another visa application, which will be adjudicated per normal procedures. While legally accurate, the statement again gives the impression that the United States will sit in judgment of Modi, an arrangement at which India bristles.
Instead, on the heels of the December 2013 court ruling that cleared Modi of involvement in the riots, the United States should admit that its earlier visa decision may have been in error, and invite Modi and other BJP leaders for a visit. The symbolism of such an admission and invitation would not be lost on anyone.
No doubt, the U.S. government already realizes the bind it is in and would be very unlikely to deny Modi a visa a second time. Should the BJP come to power, the United States would recognize the infeasibility of barring a sitting prime minister of India from visiting and quietly issue Modi a visa. It would then begin a flurry of diplomatic outreach to build a working relationship with the new Indian government.
After the elections, however, the damage will already have been done. By then, the United States will be unable to escape accusations of opportunism (a line it is already dangerously close to crossing). It would be exposed as a country that stands by its "principles" only for low-level officials unimportant to U.S. interests. By then, it would face a government made up of unfamiliar officials. Averting such a situation is in the best interests of both sides.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal recently said that the U.S.-India partnership will continue to strengthen and deepen, dubbing it a "global relationship." Such a relationship, which holds promise for the people of both countries and the broader international community, is surely worth fighting for. The next step in that fight is escaping the self-imposed estrangement of the past 10 years.
Anish Goel is a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation. He previously served in the White House's National Security Council as senior director for South Asia.