Why the US is right to deny Narendra Modi a visa

SHARANYA KANVILKAR writes from Bombay: Waking up at five, switching on the computer, making myself a cup of coffee, and checking mails (and what the world has been upto) has become a daily, early-morning routine for me, before the kids wake up.

This morning, I did all that. But I also whistled silently when I came across E.R. Ramachandran‘s irony-filled piece on the denial of a US visa to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi: “Do only Gujaratis have asmita? Don’t we Indians?

Ah, an individual’s travel hassles wrapped in the tricolour. Sounds suspiciously familiar, I thought to myself.

Then, as the caffeine kicked in, I pondered the irony in Mr Ramachandran’s defence. The BJP has said “nobody was dying to go to the United States” and “nobody was looking for a certificate from it”. So, why this spirited defence on churumuri.com?

To turn the question around, if the BJP itself doesn’t have asmita about the denial of visa, why should we Indians?

But there was far greater irony in lawyer-cum-BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad‘s revealing defence. He says the US gives visas to dictators, fascists, murderers etc, but a “democratically elected leader of a federal state of India” was being denied the same.

Mr Prasad doesn’t tell us, nor does the author, that the same Narendra Modi employed an image management firm that polishes the images of dictators, fascists, murderers etc to buff up his image for the 2007 Gujarat elections, with the express intention of gaining a US visa.

If you can put that lapse down to poor memory, what if the United States had relented and given Modi a visa? Would Prasad still be saying that thing about the United States giving visas to “dictators, fascists, murderers etc,”?

You may call it a counterfactual question; the psychologists call it a Freudian slip.

Like all things with the BJP today, the ultimate irony was the contorted bid to twist and turn the facts to paint the issue as part of some vast anti-Hindu, anti-BJP, anti-Indian conspiracy. Mr Ramachandran says it “appears” as if the Congres-led UPA government is “happy” at the visa denial.

“Appears”?

To whom?

Secondly, he claims, the government isn’t asking questions?

Excuse me.

When Modi’s visa was revoked in 2005, the Congress-led UPA government had “lodged a strong protest“, called it “uncalled-for”, and said it displayed “lack of courtesy” to an elected leader. The Congress leader of the opposition in Gujarat had termed the decision unfair.

Well, it “appears” to me that it has done so this time too, because as Mr Ramachandran points out, nobody’s hands are clean and some Congress (and Shiv Sena, RJD, NCP, CPM, DMK, SP, etc) men and women with blood on their hands may have to travel abroad too.

What more should the government of the day be doing? Sit on a fast-unto-death outside the US consulate on Warden Road?

Then again, surely, the granting of a visa is a “sovereign right of any State”?

But the mother of all ironies is the sight of an ordinary citizen batting for an extraordinary leader—a 56-inch barrel chested man who thumps his “chhappan ki chaati“—when it should be the other way round.

# Hundreds of young, intelligent, ambitious, hard-working young men and women are denied a visa by the United States (and other countries) to study and work for the flimsiest of reasons.

# Hundreds of elderly men and women are denied a visa by the United States (and other countries) to join their children and kin for physical, moral and emotional support.

# Hundreds of adult men and women are denied a visa by the United States (and several other countries) despite a spotless record in life and their careers.

Where is our moral outrage at the discourtesy to our countrymen and women, all legal citizens of the “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic” of India with passports issued under the seal of the President of India?

Why, suddenly, does our heart beat for someone whose partymen (and affiliates) stopped the heartbeats in several hundred men, women and children, some unborn, because somebody, somewhere decreed that the action in Godhra deserved an equal and opposite reaction in the rest of Gujarat?

The answer is threefold:

i) We have fallen for the Goebbelsian propaganda tactics that the Hindutva Herd employs every night on TV to turn dark lies into shimmering truths.

ii) We are wallowing in majority victimhood, recently on display in various parts of the country, to show that one of our own is being needlessly victimised.

iii) We have fallen into the neocon trap of looking at elections as the ultimate certificate.

Narendra Modi may have democratically won a brute majority in 2003—the operative word being “brute”. He may have democratically come back to power on a brute majority in 2007. But aside from showing up our first-past-the-post democracy for what it is, it proves nothing.

It certainly does not automatically absolve him of his role in the 2002 pogrom before the US visa officer.

The truth is that Narendra Modi has a massive image problem regardless of how many times the soundbytes  “good governance”, “incorruptibility”, “tough on terrorism”, etc, are drummed into the skulls of people by the BJP’s spokesmen and media heads. And he will have that massive image problem despite recent certificates of “statesmanship” that channels like CNN-IBN have been speedily conferring on him.

That massive image problem is his, his party’s, and their ideology’s.

It’s not a massive image problem of the honest, hard-working citizens of this country who go through unspeakable tension and humiliation before visa officers despite spotless clean financial, educational and police records.

***

Narendra Modi may thump his chest, slap his thighs, and twirl his moustache to show his manhood. He may glower at journalists, walk out of interviews, and shut out dissident voices and show his machismo. His name, face and mask may scare victims, voters, witnesses, rivals.

Those who ask questions, point fingers, and raise doubts may be shouted down. Those who remind the world of what happened may be labelled and branded.

All that may convince the converted (pun intended), not one of whom dare reveal such naked racist hostility before visa officers when they are in the queue for their H1B and B1/B2 visas.

But Narendra Damodardas Modi has been dubbed the “Slobodan Milosevic of India“, when not being dubbed a “modern-day Nero“.

He has to provide convincing answers for the deaths and injuries of thousands—Muslims and Hindus—under his watch. For the chilling images of barbarism that journalists, human rights activists, police officers, and others have captured and documented. For his barely concealed contempt for the minorities, the social and economic boycotts, the subversion of justice, for the institutionalisation of hatred.

Merely pointing to his electoral victory as if a clean chit has been issued to all that happened will not do. Suddenly pretending to be victim and ascribing an “anti-Hindu” conspiracy by the Christian West will not do. And pointing to similar excesses by brutes of the Congress party in 1984, or by brutes in the United States in different parts of the world, will not do either.

Ambitious Mr Modi aims to be prime minister in the medium term. He at least aims to be home minister in the short term. But he needs to demonstrate to the world that his hands are clean. Even before that, he needs to demonstrate his nuanced understanding of Newton‘s third law of motion to a US consulate officer sitting behind toughened glass.

For all his machismo and media manipulation, Modi seems patently unable to get past the first post.

Like India, the United States too is not entirely populated by angels. But unlike our democracy, it still has some systems, processes, checks and balances in place. Its lawmakers still can’t be bought en masse to ask questions or to vote like ours.

It’s not foolproof, of course, it’s not without its chinks, but it is there.

Salute it silently, while you wonder why a poor diamond worker in Surat may receive his visa-stamped passport by Speedpost™ while the all-powerful chief minister of his wondrous State can’t, hasn’t, won’t, and shouldn’t.

Photograph: Karnataka Photo News

Also read: ‘Intimidation won’t help restore Gujarati asmita’

‘A disgraceful assault on the freedom of the media’

In prosperous Gujarat, everybody can buy the media