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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2368

Appointment of Nisha Desai Biswal – the Gujarati Connection

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London…

If the exit polls are to believe, the Congress Party that ruled most of the post-independent India is about to be routed at the assembly elections held in four states this week. The immense popularity of Narendra Modi, known as NaMo, has shaken every layer of the hierarchy of the ruling Congress Party to the core, given that the parliamentary elections are just five months away.

Meanwhile, in the long run, NaMo is going to cause an even bigger headache for the United States, because of a decision that the state department made about eight years ago – banning Mr Modi’s entry to the US by rejecting a diplomatic visa and cancelling the existing business visa. It goes without saying the diplomatic scrimmage that the two sides are heading towards, if Mr Modi becomes the next Indian prime minister.

In 2005, the United States imposed a visa ban on Mr Modi on the grounds of his alleged ‘role’ in the attacks against Muslims in his home state Gujarat, when he was the Chief Minister at the time, which resulted in the death of over 1000 Muslim civilians. Since then, the US administrations have been maintaining the status quo while meagrely hinting about no-change of its policy, despite NaMo’s spectacular rise, both in popularity and standing in the Indian politics – at least, in public.

In this context, I may not be the only one who does not find the appointment of Mrs Nisha Desai Biswal, an American Indian of Gujarati origin, as the assistant secretary of state for the South and Central Asia merely coincidental.

The carnage against the Muslims followed the attack by a mob of Muslim extremists on a train full of Hindu pilgrims in Gujarat on 27 February in 2002. The accusation against Mr Modi by the US, following its own investigation, of course, was not about Mr Modi’s direct involvement in the riots, but what the then US administration saw as his ‘passive role’ in quenching the violence against the minority in the state of Gujarat.

Since then, Mr Modi has certainly moved on while the US kept acting as if the issue never existed: NaMo turned relatively-under-developed, aridly-barren Gujarat state into an economic powerhouse within a decade, while embarking on impressive infrastructure projects and attracting mass foreign direct investment - FDI; he encouraged expatriate Gujaratis – the wealthiest Indians abroad – to invest in their home country; he pragmatically dealt with the issue of corruption, if not completely eradicated, raised the living standard of the poor while creating an investment-friendly atmosphere throughout the state, to name but a few.

Within a span of a few years, Mr Modi’s reputation as a man of action rocketed and A K Advani, the incumbent leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, was forced to make an embarrassing retreat to make way for Mr Modi as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP.

At present, the wave of NaMo euphoria that sweeps across India shows no sign of abating, despite the resurrection of the image of non-secular bogeyman and endless insults aimed at him with vituperative references to his humble beginnings. Digvijay Singh, a Congress Stalwart from Bihar, for instance, is in the habit of calling him chaiwallah – tea seller – while making references to the days that NaMo used to work in a canteen, run by the Indian Railways, in order to make ends meet.

Moreover, the sudden, misplaced sentiments expressed by regional players like P Chidambaram, the finance minister, with an unnecessary focus on the constitutional amendments – or lack of it – of the neighbours, when the economy that he is supposed to oversee is not doing well at all, reflects the fear that engulfs the Congress camp in the presence of sweltering heat of NaMo wave.

The miscalculation that the US made was the assumption that NaMo would never reach out to the Muslim community in his own state of Gujarat, let alone in India. That is not true; Muslims are slowly warming up to him despite being branded as a hard-line Hindu nationalist.

Masooq Malik, an IT consultant living in West London, a Muslim originally frojm Ahmedabad, Gujarat tells me how Mr Modi has transformed Gujarat beyond recognition within a decade. “The fact that the US turned its back on him was actually a blessing in disguise as far as his political career is concerned,” Mr Malik continued.

“NaMo turned his focus intensely on home state to develop it, instead of fighting with the World’s only Superpower over a visa issue which was deemed futile.”

Mr Malik thinks that a significant number of Muslims in the state of Gujarat will vote for him; he, however, is not sure about the national mood in five months’ time, though, as far as the Muslim vote bank is concerned - before the election.

If NaMo comes to power, he wouldn’t be just a prime minister of a developing country. On the contrary, he will be the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy while the US remaining the greatest advocate of the same political model in the world. In this context, it is unthinkable the pair being in a situation while refusing to see each other’s eye, while turning a blind eye on mutual dependence that stems from a huge network of interests.

By contrast, Britain, the closest ally of the US after Israel, developed a more pragmatic approach last year without reading the riot act to Mr Modi, while ending his diplomatic isolation. Britain, home to a very successful Gujarati business community, has kept diplomatic channels open to Mr Modi in recent times, perhaps knowing very well the unstoppable march of NaMo towards political stardom.

Nisha Desai Biswal said on Wednesday that there was no change in visa policy. Then, in the same breath, she said that the US was looking forward to working with any Indian government that emerges from the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. Then, Mrs Biswal spelled out a few more aspects of the evolving US diplomatic vision: “All individuals apply and have to undergo a review process," she said. "So, if there is an application, there will be a review process."

In the end, Mrs Biswal did not hesitate to say, "I can't speak to what the outcome of that process will be," if the Gujarat chief minister applies for one. Finally, she hinted about the inevitable, potential finale of the diplomatic drama, which is known among the laymen as the ‘U’ turn: “Depending on the official and the capacity in which they are visiting a determination is made what kind of visa they are going to get,” wound up Mrs Biswal, while leaving the business of reading between the lines to us.

The battle for supremacy between the State Department and Defence Department was well known during the last Republic administration. The recent spy scandals, laid bare by Edward Snowden, the spy on the run in Moscow, clearly showed the department of Defence has not changed much since then - while leaving the task of clearing up the mess conveniently at the hands of the State Department.

The appointment of a native Gujarati speaker to the post of assistant secretary of state, covering a region that is strategically vital to the US, once again shows that the Department of State is much more ingenious and intuitive than that of Defence, in identifying potential trouble spots in the game of diplomacy - in their very infancy.

On the flip side, the spontaneous mutation of the issue of human rights to that of human uncertainty in a matter of a few years may not show the State Department as a holy monument to diplomatic consistency, though.

Kudos goes to our ancient peasants who said, “Kiss the hand that you cannot cut!”

- Asian Tribune -

Appointment of Nisha Desai Biswal – the Gujarati Connection
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