US Ambassador Nancy Powell recently resigned from her job as envoy to New Delhi. There is speculation and denial that her departure, scheduled for next month, is linked to the rise of Narendra Modi as the country’s prospective prime minister.
Mr Modi, who inspires hysterical adulation and serious apprehension among opposite sets of Indians, has so far been denied a US visa after right-wing Hindu mobs attacked minority Christians and Muslims under his watch in the communally polarized state of Gujarat.
Mr Modi’s election has been sponsored by the combination of a hate-mongering Hindu right and a clutch of business entrepreneurs who have been complicit by never condemning the violence. And some of them have enviable connections with the current and previous American presidents. Leading the pack of favourites are the Ambani siblings. Their father, the late Dhirubhai Ambani, is said to have had personal bonding with the Clintons.
According to one version of his global interests, they straddled Pakistan too. Inaugurating scribe M.J. Akbar’s book in Marathi last year, former BJP president Nitin Gadkari claimed that Dhirubhai had a one-on-one meeting with president Clinton during his 2000 visit to India that was followed by a short halt in Pakistan.
The tycoon, according to Mr Gadkari, had pleaded with Mr Clinton to speak to General Pervez Musharraf to spare the life of the then ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Whatever the merits of the claim, suffice it to say that the late Mr. Ambani’s sons have been invitees at the Bush and Clinton presidential inaugurals.
If Ms Powell is indeed being moved to prepare the ground for Mr Modi’s coronation, she will be seen by an overwhelming majority of Indians as a friend who stood by the ground at a critical moment. Mr Modi’s minders in the Hindu neo-fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have gleefully claimed that Ms Powell was being sent home to clear the way for a Gujarati American successor.
The RSS journal, The Organizer, offered two explanations for Ms Powell’s premature departure: “The first reason being detention and humiliation of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade on American soil, and the other being her delay in engaging with Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi well in time.”
The paper noted that though “other detractors, Britain, Canada and European countries” restored communication with Modi in good time, US engagement has been delayed as Powell was believed to be “going by the hostility of the Congress-led UPA government”.
The RSS spoke of the “possibility of Obama administration naming Indian-origin Rajiv Shah, who is a Gujarati, as a replacement of … Powell”. This, it said, was being seen as a diplomatic step to improve ties with India. If Shah’s appointment becomes a reality, the RSS says it would indicate “that the United States has finally begun taking affirmative steps to engage with the soon to be government in Delhi.
For a majority of Indians, Washington’s response regardless of who its next envoy is will be seen in the context of India’s existential challenge that Mr Modi poses. In other words, any dilution of the admonition of the prime ministerial hopeful will be seen by a majority of Indians as a policy laced with opportunism.
We have seen the humane side of president Clinton. Even after he had demitted office he came to visit the devastation caused by the Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat. He even helped raise millions of dollars in aid for the victims.
“I have followed this earthquake on television, but when I came here I realized that this is something unimaginable, almost incomprehensible,” he had said. No such words on the slaughter.
The United States has a history of missing the point at crucial and potentially tragic moments. It missed the Iranian revolution. It missed the Rwanda massacre. It missed India’s nuclear explosion. And when it doesn’t miss an unfolding tragedy, it becomes complicit in its denouement.
It was the George W. Bush era in Washington when the pogroms took place in Gujarat. There was not a word of criticism. By sheer contrast, the enormity of the mass murder wreaked by Pakistan’s military in Bangladesh was far higher when Richard Nixon was firmly in power in Washington.
The Bangladesh documents were declassified ironically in the year of the Gujarat pogroms. They show how the policy directed by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger was on a trajectory that became known as ‘The Tilt’.
We are not privy to what Ms Powell has told her seniors in Washington about the prospects for India under Mr Modi. In the case of Bangladesh, one of the first ‘dissent cables’ questioned US policy and morality at a time when, as the consulate general in Dhaka Archer Blood wrote: “Unfortunately, the overworked term genocide is applicable.”
The role that Nixon’s friendship with Yahya Khan and the China initiative played in US policymaking leading to the tilt towards Pakistan is all too well known.
Discussing the martial law situation in East Pakistan during March of 1971, president Nixon, in his February 1972 State of the World report to Congress indicated that the “United States did not support or condone this military action”. Nevertheless, the US did nothing to help curtail the massacre and never made any public statements in opposition to the West Pakistani repression.
The question then arises in the liberal circles of India, just as it has been doing the rounds in Islamabad and Dhaka for years: does the US really care?
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi. This article first appeared in Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest daily.