Ask any BJP leader about whom the party might project as its prime ministerial candidate in 2014, and you’ll likely be subjected to incoherent waffling that indicates great uncertainty.
Media analysts given to reading the party tea leaves have focused disproportionately on Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj as being the moderate faces of the party with the best chances of carrying the party forward. If Narendra Modi’s name comes up as a potential candidate at all, it is only in hushed and defensive tones, since even the BJP reasons that it is still paying the political price of the 2002 riots.
Yet, in faraway China where electoral politics as practised raucously in India, is an alien beast, Communist Party leaders and policymakers may have read their own tea leaves and come to two conclusions on the Indian polity. The first: given the changing political dynamics in India, the BJP stands a reasonable chance of coming to power in 2014. Second, in the event of the BJP coming to power, Narendra Modi’s chances of becoming prime minister are considerably better than headlines indicate.
Chinese policymakers, who are pragmatic and far-sighted, may also be betting that — as happened under AB Vajypayee’s prime ministership — Sino-Indian relations may actually go beyond the day-to-day paranoid scaremongering that characterises bilateral relations today, and improve dramatically under a right-wing leadership. It is in that context that they perhaps find Narendra Modi a man that China can do business with.
Late last week, China’s ambassador to India, Zhang Yan, reached out to Modi and expressed China’s interest in working together to sharpen Gujarat’s industrial and manufacturing edge, which has driven it to the top of the charts of Indian states ranked on industrialisation. He also invited Modi to visit China, which the Chief Minister said he had accepted.
Red carpet vs visa snub
The Chinese invitation to Modi is an astute political move, and sends a very strong political signal, particularly in the context of the fact that Modi was in 2005 controversially denied a visa to travel to the US for his role in the 2002 riots – on the strength of lobbying by human rights activists in the US.
By rolling out the red carpet for Modi, in contrast to the US visa snub, Chinese officials are making a calculated investment in the future, which they know will be well received by a leader who prides himself as an embodiment of Gujarati asmita (self-respect).
And unlike US diplomats, who (WikiLeaks cables reveal) said they were sending Modi “a clear message regarding the US government’s concerns for the state of human rights and religious freedom in Gujarat,” the Chinese are open to doing business with him without offering lectures on human rights.
Some of this springs from China’s place in the world. As a country that is at the receiving end of a lot of unwelcome advice from the US and others about its human rights record, China makes a virtue of its “non-interference” in the internal affairs of other countries. On occasion, of course, this has manifested in China’s mollycoddling of dictators around the world – from North Korea to Myanmar to Sudan to Zimbabwe. But since no major world power can today claim the moral high ground on that count, China has robustly pressed ahead with its single-minded pursuit of its strategic interests, unmindful of criticism.
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