The big debate right now in America is whether to hand more visas to Indian techies who want to study or live in the United States. But the issue that dominated the news cycle in India last week concerned the visa of one man: Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, who wants to do neither.
Sixty-five members of the Indian Parliament—some of whom have since backtracked —released a letter they wrote to President Barack Obama urging him to maintain America’s eight-year-old visa ban on Modi. The U.S., along with England and other Western countries, imposed the ban after human-rights groups implicated Modi in the 2002 massacre of Muslims in his state.
That year, Hindu mobs—some led by figures from Modi’s own party, one of whom was eventually convicted—went on a revenge spree against Muslims for burning a train with Hindu pilgrims. They razed Muslim homes, raped Muslim women, and killed Muslim men.
The Indian Supreme Court exonerated Modi a decade later, but by then many witnesses had been tampered with or died or killed.
However, when asked by Reuters a few weeks ago if he felt any remorse over the grisly events that unfolded on his watch, his response was: If your driver runs over a “kutte ka baccha”—a crude term for a puppy—you would obviously feel regret; it was a statement that simultaneously dodged responsibility and dehumanized Muslims.
The latest scandal dogging Modi involves the killing of a young Muslim woman with alleged links to Pakistani terrorists in a staged encounter with the Gujarati police. Some of the accused cops have alleged that Modi knew and gave the encounter his blessing.
But none of this has fazed Modi’s solid fan base in the majority Hindu population that has made him the opposition BJP’s (Bharatiya Janata Party) standard-bearer in next year’s elections for prime minister.
Part of Modi’s attraction is that, in sharp contrast to the incompetence, corruption, and intellectual bankruptcy of the ruling Congress Party, he is a man of vision (he advocates a Hong Kong-style free market and deregulation as the tonic for India's flailing economy) —and an able administrator who has done wonders for Gujarat's economy. This is an image he feeds constantly. A month ago, a story floated by someone in his party about how he orchestrated the rescue of 15,000 people stranded in a flood zone, even as the Indian army struggled, caused a sensation among his followers. When media investigations proved that Modi’s Rambo-like rescue could not possibly be true, they blamed not him but his political opponents for planting the story to embarrass him.
But the main reason Modi attracts worshipful Hindu throngs is his open contempt for Congress’ ideology of secularism that, in his view, has balkanized the country by extending special favors to Muslims and other minorities to win their votes. That is not a baseless accusation. But what is Modi’s solution? Deepening that balkanization. He proudly calls himself not just a nationalist but a Hindu nationalist. His insult-of-choice for Congress is that it wears a “burqa of secularism”—a thinly veiled reminder to Hindus that Modi represents their—not Muslim—interests.
But the question is: why does Modi covet an American visa, given that unabashed love for the motherland is a central plank of his politics? It is not because Modi is desperate to visit Disneyland. It is because the Hindu nationalist project involves not just changing the perception of Hinduism as a weak religion at home but abroad as well. India’s economic success has given Hindus—especially the urban nouveau riche—a resurgent pride in their religion after enduring decades of digs about India’s “Hindu rate of growth.” They want Hinduism to be seen as the solution to the centuries of mess created by Muslim and British “foreign” rule. They want the world to regard India’s success as synonymous with Hinduism.
Modi, a fire-brand Hindu, is perfect for the job—except that he can’t do it so long as he remains a pariah on the international stage. Obtaining a U.S. visa is an important step in rehabilitating himself in the West.
All of this puts the United States in a difficult predicament. Should Modi become the elected prime minister of India next year, it would be awkward for the head of the world’s most populous democracy—and an American ally—not to be able to travel to America. At that point, an ongoing ban will become a slap in the face not just of Modi and his backers, but of India.
However, removing the ban right now will whitewash his sins and make him more electable. A U.S. visa is not a travel permit; it is an international seal of approval, which is why his backers have been fiercely petitioning the State Department to grant it. The letter that Indian M.P.s wrote was an effort to exert counter-pressure and neutralize that campaign.
There are no good options but, all things considered, America should err on the side of not enhancing Modi’s appeal right now—hoping that the core decency of the Indian people keeps this polarizing, saffron-robed figure (who won’t wear green because it is the color of Islam) out of New Delhi next year.
This column originally appeared in The Daily Beast.