British thaw with Modi shows which way the wind is blowing

During the Google+ hangout that he hosted late in August, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was asked a question by one of his NRI followers, which goes to the core of an international campaign to ostracise Modi for his government's failure to put down - or, some would say, complicity in - the riots of 2002 following the Godhra carnage.

When, oh when, would Modi be able to secure a US visa and travel there, the supporter asked Modi. Given that the US administration had, as a concession to the inflamed  sentiments of human rights campaigners, signalled that it would not issue Modi a visa (were he to apply for one, which he evidently has not), the  issuance of a visa had been seen by his supporters as an event that would represent a turning of a troubled page in history.

Modi's response to the question, however, showed up a rather more blase attitude on his part. "Your dream may be that  I should visit the US," Modi said. "But my dream is that we become so empowered that Americans queue up for visas one day.” Modi's inversion of the 'visa power' equation fed into the theme of 'asmita" (pride), and was well received by his supporters.

For all the spin that Britain puts on it, it is betting on Narendra Modi. PTI

But barely a month later, straws in the wind indicate that Western powers in economic decline are beginning to clamber down from the pedestal of the high moral ground that they had clambered onto, largely in response to the high-decibel campaign by domestic liberal constituencies to target Modi.

On Monday, British High Commissioner James Bevan travelled to Gandhinagar and met Modi, signalling a "re-engagement" with Gujarat under Modi and ending a 10-year freeze and a virtual 'boycott' over the 2002 riots in which, among others, three Britons of Gujarati origin were killed.

Fully aware of the political message that might be read into his meeting, particularly since it comes so close to the Assembly elections, Bevan went to elaborate lengths to claim that his meeting with Modi did not amount to a political  "endorsement" of the Chief Minister.

"I don't agree with your perception that we are rehabilitating Mr Modi," Bevan told mediapersons. "This engagement is not about endorsement." If anything, he added, this was a "re-engagement" with Gujarat as a whole - and not with any individual.  "If we need to engage with some state, we need to engage with the chief minister of the State and Mr Modi is the democratically elected leader of Gujarat.”

The High Commissioner's discomfiture is easy to understand. For 10 long years, Britain, along with other leading Western powers, had tied themselves too closely to the human rights activists' demand for a boycott of Modi for alleged complicity in the 2002 riots. And today, the self-same Britain has unilaterally ended its 'boycott' and begun to re-engage with Gujarat on Modi's terms.

And although even today the British High Commissioner makes ritualistic invocations of  human rights sensibilities, the emphasis has subtly shifted in a manner that conveys that Britain has reassessed its priorities vis-a-vis Gujarat, and has come around to the view that the boycott of what from all accounts is an economically vibrant Gujarat is hurting Britain more than Gujarat, with little or nothing to show in terms of  brownie  points won from human rights activists.

The past 10 years have accentuated the relative economic decline in Britain, and in a larger sense, the developed economies of the West. Where once it used to be said that the sun never sets on the British empire, the more contemporaneous reality is that it doesn't rise on it anymore. And there's only so much of moral grandstanding that an empire in terminal economic decline can do.

For all the spin that Bevan puts on it, his meeting with Modi signals more starkly than words can say that the tide of international political opinion vis-a-vis Modi is beginning to turn. If Britain were so genuinely committed to re-engaging with Gujarat - and not with Modi - it could easily have waited for a few more weeks, when the Gujarat Assembly election cycle would have been completed.

But Britain has evidently read the tea leaves, and has concluded that given the very real prospect that Modi will be re-elected to power a third time, and the infinite political possibilities that might open up soon after - in terms of elevating his candidacy for Prime Ministership -  it wanted to get in on the 'winning' side sufficiently early.

Britain is evidently betting that it will gain first-mover advantage with its early re-engagement with Gujarat: strikingly, the US isn't rushing in just yet with anything that sounds like an endorsement, and continues to insist that a visa for Modi would be treated on its merits.

But even within the US, there are leaders and lawmakers who want the US administration to re-orient its official policy towards Modi and bet on the future, rather on dwell on the past. Indicatively, Congressmen like Joe Walsh have been writing to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to consider issuing Modi a US visa; speaking at a Gujarat Day celebration some months ago, Walsh went so far as to say that he would not smile until Modi was official invited to the US (more here).

Official US policy towards Modi hasn't discernibly changed, but  as a US diplomat in Washington told Firstpost, all that could change if Modi becomes Prime Minister. "If Modi becomes Prime Minister, the travel ban will naturally be forgotten. We can’t block a head of state from attending say the annual session of the United Nations general assembly. If Modi becomes India’s prime minister, we will have to put out the red carpet for him,” the diplomat had said (more here).

Modi still faces formidable political obstacles at home: "secular" parties and constituencies won't readily give up their visceral opposition to him. But the British thaw shows which way the wind of international political opinion is blowing.