Four misconceptions about Narendra Modi

Published: June 4, 2014
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Observers routinely claim that Modi has not been allowed to visit America since 2005. Actually, this is not technically true. PHOTO: REUTERS

India’s new prime minister is a man of contradictions. He covets foreign investment and embraces globalisation, but he also speaks limited English and harbours hard-line Hindu nationalist views. He is alternately described as a pro-business reformer and an anti-Muslim ideologue.

Narendra Modi, who was sworn in on Monday, is a complex figure. Not surprisingly, he is also dogged by many misconceptions. Four in particular are getting a lot of mileage these days. Now is the right time to expose them.

1. Modi has been banned from the US since 2005

Observers routinely claim that Modi has not been allowed to visit America since 2005. Actually, this is not technically true.

In 2005, Washington revoked Modi’s existing US tourist visa and rejected his application for a new diplomatic visa. Modi has not reapplied for a US visa since then. And because he hasn’t applied again, he hasn’t been rejected — so we can’t say that the 2005 ban has continued to be in effect. He may well have been denied a visa had he reapplied for one;

“Our position on the visa issue hasn’t changed at all,” a State Department spokesperson said back in 2012.

But since he didn’t reapply, there’s no way of knowing exactly what Washington’s response would have been.

Immediately after the announcement of India’s election results, President Obama placed a congratulatory call to the victorious Modi and informed him that he is welcome to visit the country. Modi, however, will likely still hold a grudge—one that, like many grudges, relates to a single slight that happened long ago, and has not happened again since then.

2. Modi could undermine US-India relations

Some have predicted that a grudge-bearing Modi won’t rush to embrace Washington, particularly when the bilateral relationship is already fraught with so many tension points not named Devyani Khobragade (the New York-based diplomat whose arrest sparked a diplomatic furore in December). These range from Washington’s courtship of Islamabad to New Delhi’s cordial relations with Tehran.

Still, there are compelling reasons to suggest Modi could provide a boost to bilateral ties. He has referred to the two countries as natural allies, and the last BJP government enjoyed solid relations with Washington. Additionally, in recent years, economic issues have posed major obstacles to the relationship. The US business community — a vital pro-India constituency — has been deeply critical of what it perceives as overly protectionist Indian policies. Modi, with his pro-trade and pro-investment views, has a strong interest in overcoming such challenges. He and Washington also share many strategic interests in South Asia — from stability in Afghanistan to support for greater regional integration and trade.

US-India relations have often struggled over the years, and it’s unrealistic to expect them to experience a golden age now. Nonetheless, Modi offers considerable grounds for optimism.

3. Modi performed economic miracles in Gujarat

Modi is often praised for his economic achievements in the state he served as chief minister from 2001 until just a few days ago. These include income boosts, spikes in foreign direct investment (FDI), and — most impressively in a nation where 300 million people are off the national grid — the electrification of every Gujarat village.

In truth, however, Modi’s economic record in the state is not as stellar as is often suggested. An analysis by Quartz has found that Gujarat lags behind other Indian states on several key measures—including gross state product and employment rates. Even Gujarat’s FDI levels, which Modi has often touted, are far inferior to those of states such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu (which boast the cities of Mumbai and Chennai, respectively — both huge magnets for FDI).

Most troubling is Gujarat’s human development index (based on life expectancy, income and education), which has fallen behind that of numerous other Indian states in recent years. Also, in 2012, Gujarat’s infant mortality rate was the 23rd highest of India’s 28 states.

4. Modi could destabilise South Asia

Imagine if Modi deepens India’s presence in Afghanistan, prompting Pakistan to mobilise more troops along its western — and eastern — flanks. Or imagine if Modi’s Hindu nationalist views anger Pakistani Islamist militants, spawning terrorist attacks inside India. Or if China tests Modi — who has called on Beijing to “give up its expansionist attitude” — by staging an incursion along the disputed India-China border region in Arunachal Pradesh state. Analysts contend that Modi would respond to such provocations with far less restraint than his predecessor, Manmohan Singh — and with troubling implications for stability.

Fair enough.

However, such destabilising scenarios would threaten Modi’s core policy goal of economic growth. Expect Modi’s foreign policy watchwords to be commercial partnerships and economic diplomacy — efforts that eschew rather than encourage conflict. Expect him to reach out to Islamabad and invite it to consummate a long-negotiated Most-Favoured Nation trade relationship with New Delhi. And expect him to robustly engage China, a nation that he unabashedly admires for its economic model. In other words, expect Modi to pursue an assertive, not aggressive, foreign policy — one rooted in economics more than expansionism. In this regard, his decision to invite other South Asian leaders, including Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to his inauguration — and also to hold a one-on-one meeting with Sharif the very next day — is telling.

Admittedly, provocations are still strong possibilities, and if they occur, Modi likely wouldn’t back down. Still, hawkish commanders in chief don’t always follow the script. Recall Richard Nixon’s famous opening to China, or, in a more recent era, Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw all Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza. Recall as well that when Modi’s BJP party last ran the Indian government (from 1998 to 2004), it actively pursued peace with Pakistan.

This post originally appeared here.

Michael.Kugelman

Michael Kugelman

Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He tweets @MichaelKugelman (twitter.com/MichaelKugelman)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Queen

    When BJP was in power in India during 1998 to 2004, it was Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was the prime minister. Mr Modi, on the other hand, is very different from Mr Vajpayee as Mr Modi carries the baggage of RSS and Gujarat riots with him. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has taken a bold diplomatic step and has defied all hardliners by attending Mr Modi’s ceremony but no change has been seen the Indian Government’s stance. If Mr Modi is so keen to pursue his core policy of economic growth then he should make efforts to improve relations with India’s neighboring countries. It is a good opportunity for regional growth as both the Pakistani government and the Indian Government are willing to focus on economic issues.Recommend

  • Biswajeet Kapoor Kiraula

    There are certain facts that have tainted Modi for life. They will not disappear.
    They will not go away. Regardless of how vehemently and vociferously Modi
    detractors/supporters howl. And bring up the Supreme Court of India. Again and
    again. Plus Modi’s inner circle consists of some of the most vehement anti Muslim
    elements in India. Among them, prime suspect, out on bail, Amit Shah. Modi has
    a very difficult road to walk. And he is not wearing hiking boots. Only chappals.Recommend

  • Doesnt matter

    lol? who inviited nawaz in the first place? the initiative has come from the indian side.Recommend

  • Lalit

    Modi was denied Visa in 2005 under some policy and that Policy has not been changed…..how does that make Modi welcome now in US unless you are not indulging in some wizardry of words.what were you expecting him that he should apply 300 times every year to check the mood-swings of your rulers ?Recommend

  • IHateDisqus

    With a viewpoint like yours and knowing your opinion vis-a-vis Pakistan, I would actually be glad if India stayed away from the US for the next 2-3 years.

    Modi called SAARC leaders during his inauguration in an effort to boost ties. His next priority should be Asia (particularly China, Japan & Korea) & Middle East and perhaps Brazil. There is enough that can be gained from there to not bother about the US & EU for some time. Make no mistake, the US & EU will approach him themselves once India’s investment cycle picks up.

    PS: The excerpt you quoted from 2012 is not what you mentioned but is actually the revised view that Modi is welcome to apply for a visa and it would be considered on its merits. This was because the US could not guarantee a visa to someone who didn’t apply. Now all this is moot since Obama has invited him personally. But the mandata given to Modi amply suggests that India could care less about a US visa.Recommend

  • Feroz

    Instead of airing misconceptions about Modi, it would have been much appreciated if you could have advised Pakistan on ways to benefit and conduct business with Modi led India. Let past be past, better to focus on the present and future.Recommend

  • Disgruntled

    @Queen

    Actually, Nawaz Sharif had no choice – but, indeed, he deserves praise for receiving permission from the Army Top Brass to attend. Indian Government’s ‘stance’ will change once they see some real progress in the case against the 26/11 plotters, incl Hafiz Saeed. You can’t expect to always stab India in the back (a la Kargil, 26/11 et al) and then demand India changes it’s ‘stance’.

    @Biswajeet

    Modi still won. Regardless of how your anti-Modi industry kept churning out half-truths. Yes, he has a difficult road to walk, including ‘in chappals’ as you say. So far, he appears to be willing to walk it. People like you are small speed bumps which he will easily walk over, chappals or not!Recommend

  • Naila

    The photo makes it seem like Modi has been crowned!Recommend

  • abhi099

    hahah…….I predict modi ruling india for atleast 2 decades . He is the undisputed king of india right now. That is a fact.
    Recommend

  • DH

    You cited Mumbai as one of the biggest magnets for FDI. That may be factually correct but remember that Mumbai is a financial/banking center and that is where financial inflows arrive. However, true FDI of the kind that creates factories, infrastructure and jobs is altogether different. Tamil Nadu is a better comparison versus Gujarat but then again Tamil Nadu has had a far longer history of good governance than Modi’s decade long rule in Gujarat.

    As far as the visa business is concerned, it is true that the US did not read which way the wind was blowing. That was an abject failure which cost the Ambassador her job. However, Modi’s furtherance of India’s “look east” policy is regardless of what the US did or could have done. The international economic epicenter is shifting to Asia and away from the aging and mature economies of the West. India has to find its rightful place in that transformation.Recommend

  • Parvez

    After reading this one realises that on the international stage Modi is ‘ the new kid on the block ‘………..and it would be best to wait and see how he moves.Recommend

  • http://nuclearsupremacyforindiaoverus.blogspot.com Satish Chandra

    May 27, 2014: I have said that India’s conventional forces are liabilities, not assets. Conventional forces are worthless for destroying the United States. Taking care of the enemy United States will take care of all other enemies. In the past few years I have had India’s nuclear forces emplace India’s nuclear warheads in Washington, New York and other U.S. cities, ready to be exploded. Destroying Washington and New York, with a warning that additional U.S. cities will be similarly destroyed, with nuclear warheads already emplaced in them, if there is any retaliation or sign of retaliation, will immediately make India the supreme military and economic power in the world. Recommend

  • Janissary

    This blog post was published in a different website, so Pakistan wasn’t the intended audience *facepalm*Recommend

  • Jasmine L Sunil

    Good Article but unfortunately fails to cover many important points about REAL MODI image that is camouflaged in front of innocent Indian voters…

    Modi has so far expressed no regrets for the Gujrat riots and his disturbing associations with RSS(the nationalist organization banned twice in India) . His supporters have argued that his focus on economic development is the keystone to his image softening. Nevertheless, should Modi wish to be seen as a statesman in the vein of Vajpayee or L.K. Advani, former deputy prime minister under Vajpayee, and be more acceptable on world stage, he is likely to do more to soften his image.

    Secondly, Modi’s leadership style will most likely hurt him(or in the long run Nation). In public appearances, he can be charming and like-able. By all accounts, however, Modi is an insular, distrustful person who prefers to rule with a small group of advisers. This inner circle will act as a buffer between him and his cabinet. He will reign more by fear and intimidation than by inclusiveness and consensus; he is rude, condescending, and often derogatory to even high-level party officials. He will hoard power and often leave his ministers in the cold when making decisions that affect their portfolios.

    Modi’s abrasive leadership style could alienate many of his comrades. He faced angry colleagues in Gujrat, but managed to quell their subsequent rebellion by branding them as corrupt opportunists who were disgruntled because he denied them the tools of political patronage and corruption.

    Modi has zero experience at international level . The dynamics of Indian politics and international diplomacy will require a more conciliatory and consensual style in New Delhi. Implementing his vision through India’s vast and disparate bureaucracy will be a significant challenge for Modi. In other words, the skills, style and political environment that contributed to success in Gujarat may not translate automatically into success at the union government.Recommend

  • Anjaan

    The Indian point of view on the article :

    1. The issue of US refusal of visa to Modi, is a fact that is known to all in India. It was not as much an insult on Modi, as it was on the people of India. The
    people of India are not idiots, and will not buy the spin this author is
    now attempting to give, by calling US refusal and rejection, technically not true. The people of India have spoken loud and clear on this issue, by voting Modi to power in India.

    2. Modi is a pragmatic, sane, balanced and a wise person. He will never go out of his way to scuttle any chances of improvement in the bilateral relations
    between the US and India. He will always welcome better relations with
    the US. However, the Americans have to understand that credibility of
    the US in India is poor. The people of India do not consider the US a
    trustworthy partner. Therefore Modi is likely to invest most of his time
    and energy in improving India’s relations with the economic giants next
    door, namely Japan, China, Singapore, S Korea and the ASEAN nations.

    3. The people of India know one important fact that Gujarat, under Modi’s
    three consecutive terms as the Chief Minister, has logged over 10%
    annual GDP growth, which is mind blowing by any standards. Gujarat is
    not in a race with the rest of India … for Gujarat, Singapore is the
    yardstick of development.

    4. Modi’s core policy may be economic growth, but India’s security interests will never take back seat. If there is any attempt by the forces hostile to India, to derail Modi’s economic agenda by sparking a military conflict with India, the 1.2
    billion people of India will be behind Modi …Recommend

  • Nandita.

    Dear Author,
    Point 1 of your article, wherein you have said that Modi will most likely hold a grudge against the US has already been proved wrong. PM Modi has already accepted Obama’s invitation and will be visiting the US of A this September. Modi has said,” I have said several times in the past that relations between two countries cannot be determined or be even remotely influenced by incidents related to individuals.It is in the interest of both nations to develop further on our relationship.”Recommend

  • http://nazarbaaz.blogspot.com nazarbaaz

    One of my friends from India told me that after Modi’s win, Hindus are demanding the ban on Fajar prayer call and are attacking the mosques… Any one?Recommend

  • Gp65

    The policy under which Modi was denied visa has only ever been used against one individual. Despite the fact that Modi has not applied for US visa since then there were completely unwarranted and uncalled for unilateral statements from the US state department a couple of years back stating that Modi would be denied visa if he applied. I am not referring to the more nuanced statements starting Jan 2014 and if fact BJP leadership had complained to Hillary about it.

    Having said that Modi cares about national interest and will not let his personal ego interfere with that. However he does not hanker for foreign trips and is unlikely to show up in US to attend say UN. Sushma Swaraj our foreign minister is quite capable of managing that. I do not foresee Modi visiting US unless it is for a bilateral summit for which US invites him.

    Where Pakistan is concerned, ou are correct, Modi does not want to be distracted from the primary agenda of rebuilding growth in Indian economy. However he will not submit to Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail ( we can attack you repeatedly though you are a nuclear power but if you respond even in convention terms,we will nuke you). It is time the Pakistan army reins in the non-state actors wo would be non-actors without state support.Recommend

  • Nandita.

    Some blogs and opeds seemed to try to convey that Modi would behave like a petulant 10 year old and snub the US out of spite. But he has conducted himself with grace and maturity so far and has accepted the invitation for a bilateral meeting.Recommend

  • Queen

    Prime Minister Sharif had a choice to refuse but as I said, he took a bold diplomatic initiative and visited India to attend Mr Modi’s ceremony. His visit has proved Government of Pakistan’s willingness to improve relations with the new Indian Government. Pakistan wants India to end its interference in Balochistan and to hold meaningful talks on Kashmir [including trial of people responsible for the attack on Samjhota Express) but still our government has changed its ‘stance’ and has temporarily set aside these issues in order to improve relations with the new Indian Government. You can’t always expect Pakistan to take the initiative when it is known that Pakistan is continuously being ‘stabbed’ in the back by its neighboring countries.

    As I have said in my earlier comment, in the present situation, the governments of the two countries should focus on improving economic relations as doing so will be better for the region.Recommend

  • water bottle

    I don’t think it is true. Such things would have fed our media like tamarind feeding elephants.Recommend

  • Hunza wala

    Excellent analysis. Deep down every matric passed Indian who watches
    T.V. knows this. Modi is an unknown quantity. And there is such a thing as
    guilt by association. If you maintain a street thug crowd around yourself,
    then that reflects your persona. You simply don’t turn into angel blessed
    by Mother Theresa. Notice the foaming trolls lashing out. Lord Modi can
    do no wrong.Recommend

  • Queen
  • Disgruntled

    Aren’t you the guys who keep telling us to ignore ‘fringe elements’ such as Hafiz Saeed? And you want to call attention to these lunatics? They have zero influence on Indian society as a whole – and they have to resort to such stupid acts to stay in the news. Doesn’t mean that they have any effect. Hafiz Saeed on the other hand…..Recommend

  • Dante

    Pakistan doesn’t take advice from Express Tribune. It need not take advice from a mere newspaper.Recommend

  • abhi

    Very childish article, I think you can compete with Aakar Patel now for writing thoughtless articles about Modi. Sapan Kapoort and Shivam Vij are other contenders.Recommend

  • Faulitics

    Dude, you are pure comedy gold. They should put you on TV. :-)Recommend

  • Faulitics

    Yeah. Its a delegitimization technique. It would have been closer to truth if applied on the members of the first dynasty of india.Recommend

  • Sane

    Modi…the butcher of GujaratRecommend

  • bmniac

    The paras beginning with “In truth, however, Modi’s economic record in the state is not as stellar as is often suggested.” make little sense to someone like me who has been in the business of indicators and growth indices and interregional comparisons in India.The subject is a quagmire and amateurs have little understanding of it. It is difficult to take him seriously as Kugelman’s grasp is quite inadequate on Gujarats economic growth. And the comparisons to Maharashtra and Tamilnadu make no sense. both these states were important provinces during British times and the impetus to growth began then and continues. Gujarat was born out of motley areas much of it being poorly administered a tradition continued with the Congress. Gujarat’s social indicators suffer because of the very large tribal population which is generally a drag on growth, The comparison can be with the growth performance during Modi[s tenure as CM. The Reviews of distinguished economists like Prof Debroy , Dr Surjit S Bhalla and Mr Minhaz Merchant comprehensively refute with reliable and more important relevant data the sort of views Kugelman propogates.Recommend

  • saswath

    that’s arrogance made you unstable…even last person of country can suggest something valuable…don’t implement at-least respect it.Recommend

  • saswath

    he is not anti..but over cautious to a group which has certain elements who have very conflicting nature worldwide…is it wrong to be suspicious on such elements?Recommend

  • saswath

    there is no baggage at all…all were setup and has been exposed by nationalists.Recommend

  • ajeet

    Anything to reduce noise pollution is welcome.Recommend

  • p r sharma

    You must be in sleep mode or more accurately dream mode. better remain there for ever and enjoy the fantasy.Recommend

  • http://nazarbaaz.blogspot.com/ 2#

    Noise pollution? really? because it is not allowed to play anything on speakers after 10 to 6 am right? where is the secular India then? All of a sudden the temple bells stopped making noise right?Recommend

  • kdp

    ” but he also speaks limited English ‘

    Presidents, PM of major countries of the world do not speak English at all. Do I need to name those countries?
    Banning Modi to visit USA is a very good example of American Double Standard. No government officials of Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan are banned from visiting the USA . Equal if not more number of Christians, Shia, Ahmadiyya, Hindus were killed and are being killed in those countries with no actions taken by their governments and active participation by government in case of IraqRecommend