US-Modi standoff : visa bans have limited impact on democracies

  • Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 11, 2014 22:40 IST

It will be some months before the US government can be expected to get an opportunity to issue a visa to Gujarat chief minister and BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. He is in no hurry to apply for a visa and there is a reasonable chance Mr Modi may become prime minister before he travels the next time overseas — in which case the visa ban is irrelevant. Washington gains few points for this entire rigmarole.

If the US government genuinely believes that Mr Modi was guilty of quasi-genocide then it should decline to have anything to do with him — even if he becomes prime minister. If it does not, when the rest of the Western governments rolled back their visa isolation of Mr Modi, the US should have followed suit. It could easily have cited the Supreme Court of India’s ruling to explain a change in policy. Instead, the US policy fell between two stools, earning no praise even from Mr Modi’s detractors.

India, collectively and individually, has been at the receiving end of sanctions, boycotts and overseas acts of isolation since Independence. Most have had minimal impact, though it would be untrue to claim that in the republic’s early days they did not influence policy-making. Today, when the Indian economy has been elevated to a higher plane, such attempts are laughable.

The Indo-US nuclear deal, ending decades of nuclear-related sanctions, was a testament to this new reality. Foreign government and activists cannot be stopped from trying to influence behaviour in India and elsewhere through boycotts. New Delhi, after all, has tried the same tactic against other regimes. But they should realise that when targeting a large and well-established democracy like India, they would be better off using the country’s own domestic institutions to achieve their policy ends — especially if they seek moral or ethical opprobrium. Mr Modi’s legitimacy ultimately lay in his success on election day. He was cleansed of criminal charges by the ballots he collected. Only the Indian voter and the Indian judiciary could have held him accountable for 2002.

It would probably help if India’s chattering classes had a consensus view on such things. The contrast between the emotions stirred against the US over the arrest of diplomat Devyani Khobragade and the divided muted response to the visa ban on Mr Modi is a reminder that in such things many miss the underlying principle and let themselves be swayed by their own biases.

Declaring an Indian an ethical pariah is something best done through the country’s own institutions and by its own people, with the outside world providing at best a supporting role.

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