America on the horns of a Narendra Modi dilemma

Washington, May 14: Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi’s likely elevation as the next Indian prime minister has put the US in a quandary – how to mend fences with a man it has shunned for years without losing face.

Various US functionaries have twisted themselves into knots time and again to suggest that America is ready to do business with a new leader with any label chosen by the Indian people, while acting cagey on the issue of a visa for Modi.

The formulation seems to be that Modi, the man whose business visa in 2005 was denied for his alleged role or inaction during 2002 Gujarat riots, is still unwelcome, but Modi as prime minister would be another matter.

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki for one Tuesday once again sought to make a distinction between an individual and an office.

Heads of state and heads of government are eligible for A1 visa classification under the Immigration and Nationality Act 1952, she said.

But “No individual automatically qualifies for a US visa,” she insisted though “US law exempts foreign government officials, individuals – including heads of state and heads of government for certain potential inadmissibility grounds.”

Back to the issue of a visa for Modi if he becomes prime minister, Psaki still declined “to speculate on that” but hastened to add that “We’re looking forward to working with the new Indian government when they’re elected.”

However, Washington has been now making preparations for months to face the prospect of Modi as prime minister of a country that Obama has famously described as “one of the defining partnerships of the twenty-first century.”

Obama himself said the other day that “We look forward to the formation of a new government once election results are announced and to working closely with India’s next administration to make the coming years equally transformative.”

Though late in following other western nations, the US ssignaleda major change in its outlook since the emergence of Modi on the national scene with outgoing US ambassador Nancy Powell meeting the Gujarat chief minister in February.

In fact, Powell’s impending departure from New Delhi has also been linked to the prospect of Modi becoming prime minister as Powell, a career diplomat, was said to have dragged her feet on reaching out to Modi.

Several US experts have been making a case for reaching out to Modi with the business lobby particularly active on the issue.

Ashley J. Tellis, a South Asia expert at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for one Tuesday suggested that once Modi is elected “a congratulatory call from Obama to Modi followed by a visit to India by a US cabinet member or higher-ranking official would go a long way.”

Ron Somers, a former President of the US-India Business Council, does not want the US to wait even that long for extending an olive branch to Modi.

Luckily the wait for Uncle Sam would be over in a couple of days.