What if Modi Wins? The United States’ Balancing Act in India

by Brianna Dieter

India is about to engage in the largest democratic exercise in history, with over 814 million people going to the polls to vote for the country’s next Prime Minister. Mr. Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister (governor) of the state of Gujarat, is the currentfrontrunner. Haunting Modi’s candidacy, however, is his role as CM during the 2002 Gujarat riots. Between 700 and 2,000 people were killed and tens of thousands were displaced, the majority of whom were Muslim. Although India’s Supreme Courtcleared Modi of any deliberate part in the riots, many human rights groups allege that Modi was complicit in the riots. At best, the state police and emergency response infrastructure was incompetent; at worst, the state helped organize and abet the killing of Muslims.

In 2005, when Modi applied for a visa to the United States, it was denied and his previous tourist visa was revoked based on his alleged role in the violence. Now, with the April-May vote fast approaching, the United States faces a diplomatic challenge. If Modi is voted into the highest office in India, the United States should work with him as India’s freely elected leader while taking visible steps to support values integral to America.

The United States and India had a contentious relationship during the Cold War, with India “tilting” towards the U.S.S.R. and leading the non-aligned movement. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and risk of a fiscal crisis, India liberalized its economy in 1991 and has since enjoyed a stronger relationship with the United States. Today, the United States and India arestrategic partners, focusing on security, energy, education, trade, and science. Nevertheless, India maintains a strong desire to retain strategic autonomy and loathes external commentary on its decisions.

Now, it is unthinkable that the United States and India would allow its relationship to be damaged given the momentum and regional importance of the partnership. Already, the U.S. ambassador has met with Modi, an indication of U.S. willingness to deal with him should he be elected Prime Minister. Still, the United States has refused to officially confirm that it will issue Modi a visa should he become Prime Minister.

The United States faces two primary policy challenges if Modi wins: how will it continue to signal the importance of human rights and rule of law; and, how will it signal to Muslims (in India and abroad) that the United States will protect their rights?

First, the United States should express its support for any democratically-elected leader and its respect for the will of the people. It should also acknowledge that Modi was cleared by India’s Supreme Court. This will open the way for the continuation of the Indo-U.S. strategic relationship at the highest levels.

Second, the United States can work with the Government of India (GoI) as well as NGOs to increase funding and visibility for programs supporting rule of law and Muslim empowerment. For example, the International Visitor Exchange Program run by the Department of State already provides short trips for high-potential young professionals to receive skills training in the United States, and can ensure slots for these efforts.

Third, U.S. embassy officials can visit resettlement camps for displaced riot victims in Gujarat to demonstrate the continued American attention to their plight. India has unfortunately blocked the United State Commission on International Religious Freedom’s attempts to visit India’s domestic religious refugee camps since 2001. Embassy officials can bring greater attention to these camps through their presence.

Finally, the United States can create a role for a special representative for religious minorities in India who will keep visibility on the challenges these groups face in India. As this might be an unpopular move and viewed as outside interference, the United States could tie the role to the larger work of the Special Representative to Muslim Communities that is not aimed at a particular country. Establishing a bilateral group to dialogue on the protection of religious minorities would demonstrate that the United States faces its own domestic challenges and welcomes outside perspectives.

India and the United States need each other now more than ever. If Modi is elected as Prime Minister, this fact will not change and the two countries must find a way to work together. The United States will need to be on alert, however, for rising religious tensions given that Modi’s party—the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP)—supports Hindu nationalism in a diverse country with thirteen percent Muslims and two percent Christians. This could cause instability within India and hinder the country from focusing on external issues of strategic interest to the United States, as it did in 1992, when the destruction of a mosque by right wing Hindus led to one of the worst outbreaks of religious rioting the country has ever witnessed. These policy steps, therefore, would ensure a continued working relationship while addressing the injustices of 2002.

About the Author

Brianna Dieter is a recent Fletcher graduate with a focus in Security Studies and Conflict Resolution. She was a Fulbright Scholar to India, and subsequently worked for an IT company in Bangalore for five years.

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