Asia Program

Four Misconceptions About Narendra Modi

Jun 03, 2014

India’s new prime minister is a man of contradictions. He covets foreign investment and embraces globalization, but he also speaks limited English and harbors hardline 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 U.S. 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 U.S. tourist visa and rejected his application for a new diplomatic visa. Modi has not reapplied for a U.S. 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 U.S.-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 furor 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 U.S. 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.

U.S.-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 destabilize South Asia.

Imagine if Modi deepens India’s presence in Afghanistan, prompting Pakistan to mobilize 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 destabilizing 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-Favored 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 article was originally published in The Diplomat.

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