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Mr Modi goes to Washington

I make no secret of the fact that I believe Shri Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, is an honest, intelligent, dedicated, sincere and diligent man. I admire him immensely for who he is and what he has accomplished over his many decades as a politician. The set P = {p | famous politician p is honest, intelligent, dedicated, sincere, diligent} is small but non-empty. For all I know, the set P is exhaustively enumerated as P = {Narendra Modi, Arun Shourie}. But at the very least, I am certain that {Narendra Modi, Arun Shourie} ⊂ P. I indulge myself in the frivolity of using set-theoretic notations at the start of this piece only because I have a few serious points to make.

Modi, a man of substance

Shri Modi is also a very practical man, a realist, not some airheaded idealist. Starting from “humble beginnings”, he would not have reached where he is today without being supremely practical. Despite formidable, sustained, relentless opposition from every quarter — within and without his own party — opposition that would have broken even the most hardened politician, Modi prevailed and how. He survived an ordeal by fire that no other politician in India has ever had to face. That he triumphed in the war of Indian majoritarian electoral politics without compromising his principles attests to his character and determination. He is a leader par excellence of the nation because he is a nationalist. For him, the nation above all; for him, the national interest trumps all other interests.

People trust him because he is trustworthy. He has earned, and deserves, trust. Did I mention that I admire Shri Modi? For the record, let me state that I believe that among political leaders, I consider him to be the best India has in that regard. This is not a newly arrived realization. I have been beating that drum privately and publicly for years. Unlike many (who shall not be named) observers who have only recently jumped on the bandwagon, I have consistently been what in the vernacular is called a fan.

Modi, a vilified man

Shri Modi has been unfairly vilified by his enemies. Antonia Maino’s, aka Sonia Gandhi, the chairperson of the UPA, labeling of Modi as maut ka saudagar epitomizes that abuse that large sections of the main stream media gleefully indulged in for years. They carried on a relentless, vicious campaign of hate and falsehoods for over a decade.

Modi’s response to all that calumny? Work relentlessly, and be the best, longest-serving chief minister Gujarat has ever had. And then undertake a superhuman, punishing national election campaign to win the biggest win for the NDA and the BJP. In doing so, he defeated not just the UPA, the Gandhi-Maino clan, the Congress — but also the so-called “160 Club” and the “180 Club.” It was a victory that gave a fitting reply to the despicable Maino-clan and its legions of minions.

Not just at home, Modi’s enemies took their fight off-shore. In their campaign to malign the man, they plumbed unimaginably sordid depths. They invited foreign involvement in India’s domestic affairs and undermined India’s sovereignty. They impugned and sullied India’s judicial system by proclaiming Modi guilty even after the courts found no case against him.

Modi’s US visa

Shri Modi had traveled to the US prior to 2002 and therefore had to have a US visa. But in 2005, the US State Department revoked his visa. The details of why the US did that need not detain us here. The fact is that the US State Department declared him persona non grata, in essence saying “The US does not want Modi to set foot on US soil.”

For the record we must be clear that Modi’s visa was not refused. His visa was revoked. And after the revocation, Modi did not apply and therefore there can be no valid claim that the US refused a visa to Modi. And as far as I know, the US has not reversed that revocation. I don’t know the details. Besides the details don’t really matter for what I submit here.

It seems to me (and this is just my opinion) that if the US were to reverse the 2005 revocation of Modi’s US visa, it would be admitting that it had incorrectly held Modi responsible for a crime.

Uncomfortable but Pertinent Questions

Did the US State Department make a mistake? Is Modi entitled to an apology from the US? Can the US ever apologize to Modi? Will Modi overlook the ignominy that the US State Department exposed him to? Should Modi swallow his pride and overlook the insult? Is it proper for Modi to visit the US as the prime minister of India in light of the fact that he is not welcome in the US as a private citizen? Is it an insult to Modi alone or is it an insult to India?

Has the Indian government ever expressed its dissatisfaction that the US declared the elected chief minister of one of its states as a PNG? Indeed, was the UPA ever critical of the US government’s decision regarding Modi’s visa? Or was it happy to see its political opponent pilloried even at the cost of India’s international standing?

To my mind, these are reasonable questions that need to be asked and answered. These are also uncomfortable questions and reasonable people will may differ in their answers. I have voiced my opinion publicly (on twitter and I have been on record in a piece at IndiaFacts) that I would have preferred if Shri Modi were not to visit the US until the visa issue was resolved.

I am not a politician and I definitely don’t claim insight into the complex nature of international relations and foreign affairs. Most of all, I am entirely ignorant of what is called realpolitik, a term coined by Ludwig von Rochau, a German politician in 1853.

“The study of the powers that shape, maintain and alter the state is the basis of all political insight and leads to the understanding that the law of power governs the world of states just as the law of gravity governs the physical world.”

The Law of Power

The US is the most powerful nation on earth. It is powerful militarily and economically. Economic power is a necessary pre-requisite for military power. All other nations have to therefore pay tribute to the US. This is the law. The powerful make the rules of the game. A disconcerting realization perhaps but the truth of this is evident to even the most casual observer of international relations. Modi may be the most powerful man in India but India is not powerful relative to the US. One does not have to get a degree in foreign relations to recognize that.

The two superpowers of the contemporary world are the US and China. One may recall that a few years ago when the then US president Bill Clinton was planning a state visit to China, he was contemplating a stopover in India. The Chinese told him that he should feel free to visit India but he should visit China only when he is not encumbered by an Indian stopover. From one superpower to another. Clinton dropped the India of stopping in India and did his China visit.

Later, when Clinton visited India as the US president, he did stop in Pakistan (albeit briefly.) The Indian government had pleaded (if memory serves) that Clinton not visit Pakistan on that trip but he ignored that. That’s one superpower to a subservient nation.

India does not bat in the same league as China. China and India were in the same club around 1978. But after Deng Xiaoping took over, China raced ahead of India. China’s GDP is four or five times India’s, and given that its income has been multiples of India’s for some nearly 40 years, its wealth is many times that of India’s.

Power and Wealth

Wealth matters. The wealthy are different from the poor. The wealthy nations make the rules that other nations have to play by. It is an international matter. But — and here’s a point that I will never tire of stressing — the wealth of a nation is determined not internationally but domestically. Domestic rules of the game determine whether the nation is wealthy, and that in turn determines the international pecking order.

That the prime minister of the nation is compelled by his nation’s interest to go to a nation where he is not welcome as a private citizen speaks to its international standing. I cannot imagine a situation where a major US political leader would ever visit India were the situation reversed. Leave alone the US, I cannot imagine this for happening in the case of China — a nation much, much poorer than the US.

The law of power is like the law of gravity: it cannot be ignored. The laws of economics too cannot be ignored without penalty. Those who are poor cannot afford the luxury of pride. Hat in hand, one has to be a supplicant seeking favors from the rich and powerful. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract (1762), “To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will; it is at best an act of prudence.”

An act of necessity, an act of prudence

The world sorts out the weak from the strong, it separates the dependent from the self-reliant. When it comes to individuals, the distinction between the weak and the strong is not entirely clear-cut. A favorite story relates to one of my heroes — the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (c.412 BCE – 323 BCE) — and the Greek emperor Alexander (356 BCE – 323 BCE). Diogenes was his own man and led a life of such simplicity that he had practically no possessions. He kowtowed to no man or god. Alexander was much impressed by what he’d heard about Diogenes.

Diogenes was in Corinth when Alexander the Great sent word through a messenger asking Diogenes to come see him in Macedonia.

Diogenes told the messenger, “Go tell your emperor that Corinth is as far from Macedonia as Macedonia is from Corinth. So if your emperor wants to see me, he can come and find me here.”

That is an act of will, not an act of prudence born out of necessity. Diogenes didn’t care about how high and mighty Alexander was. He was a free man.

When Alexander heard that message, he got on his high horse and traveled all the way to Corinth. Diogenes was sitting in his tub in the town square, enjoying the sun. Dismounting, Alexander grandly declared that he would grant Diogenes anything he wished for. Diogenes said to Alexander, “I want you to stand aside. You are blocking the sun.”

The distance between Washington, DC and New Delhi

In the case of nations, the power structure can be more clearly identified than in the case individuals. Diogenes was clearly more powerful than Alexander. That Modi will to travel to Washington, DC should come as no surprise. Perhaps it is not an act of will but of prudence and necessity.

Necessity compelled because India is not rich and powerful. Let me get back to the core of my simple view of India’s economy. India is poor not out of necessity but out of choice. Nations choose, and in a sense that choice is much less constrained than choices that individuals face. External circumstances limit individual choices but for a large nation (defined as having a significant fraction of the world population and a large geographical extent), its prosperity is entirely self-determined. Of course, that choice is not directly exercised by the citizens but collectively the people decide whom they want as their leaders and these leaders in turn choose the policies that determine the nation’s prosperity.

The distance between New Delhi and Washington, DC is shorter than the distance between Washington, DC to New Delhi because India’s economic policies have sucked for decades — which was because Indian leadership has sucked — which was because Indian voters have sucked in their choices.

Domestic problems, domestic solutions

India has domestic problems, and international solutions cannot solve them. If your family life is in shambles, getting citations for excellence at the office is not going to do much good. Indeed, if you have domestic problems at home, you are much less likely to get very much done at work.

For my money, I would much rather that India gets its economic policies right. By that I mean, I think Shri Modi should give a lot more attention to fixing India’s economic policies than fixing India’s foreign relations. Projects are all well and good but they are often distractions from the major tasks.

For example, the Indian agriculture sector needs urgent attention. There are too many farmers and their income is too little — the two facts are of course related. The more farmers, the poorer the whole lot. This is true from any large country. To help the farmers, reforms are needed not just in the agricultural sector but in sectors that apparently don’t have much to do with agriculture — education, urbanization, labor laws, power and international trade. This is surprising to many. I can go into it another time.

I recently read a report that Modi has asked the manufacturers of soft-drinks (Pepsi and Coke) to include fruit juices in their fizzy drinks. Why? To help Indian farmers. I kid you not. That is not right. The problems that Indian farmers face is almost all entirely due to government policies. Changing government policies will help the farmers more than exhorting drinks manufacturers to alter their products to suit the needs of Indian farmers.

India needs change. One of the biggest change that India needs has been stated by Shri Modi — India needs the Indian government to get out of business. As long as the government is so deeply entrenched in business, India will not prosper economically. India will continue to be poor, and the Indian government will continue to be a “government of the poor” and that will lead to more poverty. And that poverty will see more foreign trips, hat in hand.

India needs a change of perspective, not missions to Mars.

See also:

1. I have a few posts on Diogenes the cynic, one of my all-time heroes. See this post from 10 years ago, Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic.

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