The rise of BJP and Nancy Powell’s recall – Balbir Punj

Narendra Modi & Nancy Powell

Balbir Punj“The story of America finding itself out of sync with the political reality in India is partly also due to its obsession with its version of religious freedom. America, “the great champion of religious freedom”, is happy with its most loyal ally in West Asia that doesn’t allow even the carrying of Christian literature by a visitor to it shores. But let there be even one report about some Christian pastor being heckled in some remote village in India. And all hell breaks loose in the US. The event is enough to be quoted in the annual report that the president has to place to the Congress on the so-called religious freedom across the globe.” – Balbir Punj

NANCY_POWELLDid US ambassador to India Nancy Powell resign or was she sacked? The US embassy’s official stand on Monday night that this career diplomat resigned was preceded by a Hindustan Times report six days earlier.

The HT report said that she was being “shipped out” for failing to tell the Obama administration that the BJP prime ministerial candidate was winning the poll stakes in India as well as some recent developments around the Indian diplomat in Washington, Devyani Khobragade.

The European Union (EU) ambassadors were the first among the West’s diplomatic corps in Delhi to recognise Narendra Modi’s rising popularity. They went in a group to Ahmedabad two months ago to underline the EU’s reconciliation with Modi. Powell followed much later. Even then the US administration was saying the ban on visa for Modi for visiting America would not be immediately withdrawn. Now the Powell drama is followed by a Washington report that the ban would go if Modi was to visit America.

Early this year, several US lawmakers and their Indian friends had sought to hear Modi on the programme he has for India. But Washington dithered possibly on the advice Powell had sent that he was not winning the popularity stakes in the election arena that was formatting at the time.

With the tide in India clearly favouring Modi and signs of the NDA by itself getting close to the magic figure of 272 MPs in the 2014 elections, the US diplomat’s assessments looked far too unreal for a career diplomat with her record behind her.

One aspect of this failure to assess the emerging reality in India is the American mindset for decades that Indian democracy is secure only under a Congress dispensation in New Delhi. Perhaps Washington cannot be blamed for this because the Congress rule, especially the dominance of the Nehru family, was larger than life in our history.

It led many to equate democracy with the dominant political family even though Indira Gandhi in the early part of her rule as prime minister resisted all the charms the US administration under various presidents sought to get her to its side. The mindset should have reconsidered this equation after leaders other than those from the Nehru family took charge of India. Morarji Desai as the Janata Party’s prime minister refused to yield to president Carter’s charm on the nuclear issue.

Recall the leaked opinion of president Carter while in Delhi that Desai was no pushover. Decades later Atal Bihari Vajpayee as head of the NDA government refused to yield to president Clinton’s plea to accommodate Pakistan on the Kargil War and then Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif had to return from Washington empty-handed despite the president’s diplomatic intervention in his favour.

US President George BushOn the other hand Manmohan Singh was a prey to president Bush Jr., who convinced the UPA prime minister that the civil nuclear deal he was offering was the best India could ever have. It should not be forgotten that the Indian nuclear establishment that had for 60 years withstood the American sanctions on high technology in space and nuclear area and successfully demonstrated its own innate capacity was apprehensive of Singh’s walkover in Washington.

For all the rosy picture that the diplomatic core in both nations painted for India in the deal, not even a single nuclear power plant has been even proposed despite the deal in the last six years.

It may be that Washington’s state department, that has not been very friendly to New Delhi specially under Democrat presidents, had convinced itself that Manmohan Singh and the Congress led by Sonia Gandhi would be the best bet for American interests in India.

Therefore, the shocking discovery that the Congress-led government is on the way out and the NDA, whose lead figure to head the government is rising on the wave of his personality and programmes, placed Washington in a vulnerable position in the diplomatic stakes. More so with America seeking to rebalance its position in East Asia vis-à-vis a powerful China, a strategy in which India is expected to play a pivotal role.

It was vital that in an NDA government under Modi, the US needed all the clout it could manage. By placing itself in a position of untouchability with this emerging reality, America was hurting itself the most. Powell needed to be sent back home to convey a message of reconciliation with the emerging power centre in India.

The story of America finding itself out of sync with the political reality in India is partly also due to its obsession with its version of religious freedom. America, “the great champion of religious freedom”, is happy with its most loyal ally in West Asia that doesn’t allow even the carrying of Christian literature by a visitor to it shores.

But let there be even one report about some Christian pastor being heckled in some remote village in India. And all hell breaks loose in the US. The event is enough to be quoted in the annual report that the president has to place to the Congress on the so-called religious freedom across the globe.

The 2002 Gujarat riots were played up in the US and repeated over and over again to drive home the vilification of Modi by the same America that welcomes both Saudi royalty and their unlimited investments into the US even as hundreds of foreign nationals are rotting in Saudi jails on charges as silly as carrying the Holy Bible with them.

Christians in PakistanAlso, Pakistan is a strategic ally for the US ignoring the several cases of blasphemy slapped on Christian individuals under the notorious blasphemy law that dictator Zia imposed in the 80s that no administration in Islamabad dare moderate.

Perhaps Powell has been unfairly blamed while the real trouble in the US administration’s inability to see the reality of the BJP’s emergence as a democratic alternative at the national level in India lies in its deep-seated prejudice.

To be fair, one must add the eagerness of some of our own version of self-styled “secularists” feeding the US with reports about religious “suppression” exacerbates the mindset in Washington. Events like tribal clashes in Odisha are projected as oppression of religious minorities.

The Powell cloud has some silver lining for America. As a footnote, we must add that it was not the BJP or Modi who knocked at the doors of White House, much less the Roosevelt House in New Delhi. It was Washington that turned up as a penitent. – The New Indian Express, 5 April 2014

» Balbir Punj is National Vice President, BJP.

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