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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 109

Biden avoids meeting India's rising start Narendra Modi

Daya Gamage - Asian Tribune US National Correspondent
Washington, D.C. 26 June (

Marginalizing a potential prime minister of India by the visiting vice president of the United States and not guaranteeing to lift the visa ban on him do not hold a promising future for the Obama administration.

Biden arrived in India on Monday, the first trip by an American vice president in almost thirty years. He visited with top politicians from the ruling Congress Party and Sushma Swaraj, the head of the opposition BJP party. But one person he isn’t going to see is Narendra Modi, the controversial Chief Minister of Gujarat, all but certain to be the BJP’s candidate for prime minister in next year’s elections.

Modi has been denied visa by the US for the last several years over allegations of human rights violations during the 2002 riots in Gujarat.

Chief Minister Modi still cannot get a visa to travel to the United States, and American leaders usually avoid him on visits to India (although a delegation of American lawmakers met with him in March). Rajnath Singh, the president of the BJP, came to the US this week to urge Washington to lift its ban on Modi. So far there have been no hints that the Obama administration is willing to change the tune.

Biden’s visit and the push to lift Modi’s travel ban come in the midst of a nasty turn in the Indian elections. The Congress Party, Victor Mallet writes for theFinancial Times, has kicked off its election campaign in the usual manner: “by promising cheap food for voters and suggesting that BJP leaders, especially Mr Modi, are religious extremists.” Rajnath Singh, on the other hand, claimed that Modi was the “one single leader with national appeal,” a swipe at Congress’s presumed prime ministerial candidate and the 43 year-old scion of India’s ruling family, Rahul Gandhi.

Because Congress’s national popularity has waned over the past few years as a result of one corruption scandal after another and weakening economic growth, Modi’s star is rising, along with his party’s. His business-friendly policies and Gujarat’s amazing economic growth have won him a lot of friends in the international arena and boosted his popularity at home. The US could eventually find itself in the very uncomfortable position of having to repair ties with Modi, a divisive politician whom Washington has done its best to avoid over the years.

Under accredited Indian media pressure the US now says that it will consider Modi's visa application if he applies. The US state department spokesperson, Jen Psaki at daily media briefing said on Wednesday, "If (the Gujarat) Chief Minister Modi applies for a visa, his application will be considered to determine whether he qualifies for a visa in accordance with US immigration law and policy."

"I think I just said we will consider his application if he applies, and I'm not going to get ahead of where we are at this time," she reiterated, when asked for the second time during the news conference. "But as you know, we don't talk about the specifics of that process or individual cases, but he would, of course, be considered if he were to apply," Psaki said.

Narendra Modi has been chosen to lead India’s main opposition party’s campaign in next year’s parliamentary election. The charismatic, controversial chief minister of Gujarat is a rising star in the BJP party, and as India’s election season picks up pace, no doubt India as well as the United States going to see more of him.

But the “deeply divisive” figure—as the BBC calls him—has his fair share of problems. Some of them are more intractable than others. For one thing, because of his alleged role in the deadly 2002 riots in Gujarat, he’s not so popular in the US—when he was scheduled to speak at a University of Pennsylvania event by videoconference, a group of students and alumni protested so vociferously that the administration canceled Modi’s speech. He is still not permitted by the State Department to visit the country. His standing in the global business community is much higher, however; he is credited with turning Gujarat into India’s most business-friendly state.

Modi’s most important problem, however, is not human development or his relationship with the United States—it’s his appeal within his own country. The BJP is historically a Hindu nationalist party and Muslims still resent him for the riots in 2002. His business-friendly reputation attracts India’s upper and middle classes, but the Congress Party is far more popular among the poor. Modi’s BJP does not have the country-wide appeal that Congress does—despite Modi campaigning hard in Karnataka before elections there last month, the BJP, which had run the state government for the past five years, was thrown out after a solid drubbing at the polls.

Modi’s image as an incorruptible, efficient bureaucrat is tarnished by the accusations of corruption that played a big role in the BJP’s defeat in Karnataka.

So Modi will lead the BJP into next year’s election, but he has his work cut out for him. Indians are disillusioned with the Congress Party, which leads the ruling coalition. Will Modi be able to capitalize on this sentiment across the country? Will he be able to convince the US to stop considering him a pariah? No doubt it will be an interesting campaign, with important implications for the relationship between the world’s two largest democracies.

But the United States cannot afford to ignore or side track him.

Biden's Visit

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's four-day visit to India represented the highest-level Obama administration visit since the U.S. President showed up in 2010.According to the Indian media, It was a curious visit — and the media reports - Biden did not speak to the press, neither government had a public briefing, no agreements were signed and no statements issued. Biden's visit came just a month after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had dropped by for a visit that had more formal bells and whistles.

This could be considered a visit designed to reaffirm the Indo-U.S. relationship at a time when it is seen as being under a cloud. Biden, unlike Kerry, is part of the White House’s inner circle. Given the degree foreign policy-making has been centralized in the Oval Office, Biden was seen as the carrier of a message from Barack Obama to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Biden directly addressed two key areas where New Delhi and Washington are having increasing difficulties: AfPak and economic relations. The India media contends that neither he nor his Indian interlocutors had solutions. But what he did was to hold open and frank discussions on what the U.S. position on Afghanistan is and the complaints of corporate America on Indian policies.

The Indian media analysts further report that the policy gap on Afghanistan is considerable, and getting worse. India would prefer the U.S.’s post-withdrawal policy to be about providing arms and money to a Kabul regime to hold off the Taliban. New Delhi thinks the U.S. attempts to arm-twist Afghan President Hamid Karzai into a negotiated settlement with the Afghan Taliban are folly — and not merely because this is a line propagated by the Pakistan military. Washington would like New Delhi to persuade Karzai to take a more positive view of the Taliban talks. It is likely to be disappointed.

Corporate America has many complaints about a rash of recent economic policies carried out by the Indian government. These have included the imposition of stiff transfer taxes on foreign firms, preferential market quotas to help domestic Indian manufacturers and the use of compulsory licensing to force down the price of pharmaceutical firms. Indian software firms, on the other hand, have been bothered by the new U.S. immigration reform bill and the curbs it places on Indian firms doing offshore IT services.

But, as Biden repeatedly pointed out, and which is reaffirmed by Indian officials privately, the two countries are working well together in East Asia and the Indian Ocean. The two countries see eye-to-eye on Myanmar/Burma, on the South China Sea and more generally on how to engage China.

Analysts say though Washington is unhappy that defense cooperation has plateaued, the fact is the two countries are closer together militarily than anyone would have believed possible even ten years ago. India and the U.S. have held over 60 military exercises in the past five years, some of them of remarkable sophistication. One State Department official noted that the two had held submarine rescue exercises last year, “something that is at the cutting edge when it comes to the technology accessed.” India is the third-largest buyer of U.S. arms in the world, according to the Pentagon. New Delhi’s most vibrant bilateral defense relationships are with U.S. allies — Israel, Japan, Singapore and Australia.

- Asian Tribune –

Narendra Modi
Biden (C) interacts with students during a visit to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Mumbai on July 25, 201
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