When it comes to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the United States of America regularly appears to find itself with the shoe on the wrong foot. In a recent report, the Washington Post revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) had spied on 193 countries and six political parties, including the BJP. Essentially, the NSA decided to secretly watch the entire world barring four countries - the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Shockingly, the BJP was clubbed with entities including the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, Pakistan People's Party and the Bolivarian Continental Coordinator.
Expectedly, the party reacted strongly. This was a serious breach of privacy and an error of judgment. Such issues hold the potential to jeopardize harmonious relations between individuals, organizations and entire nations. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs said the news was extremely disconcerting, and a senior US diplomat was summoned the following day.
Beyond condemnation, there are significant aspects that require deliberation. What has been the trajectory of the relationship between the USA and BJP over the last few decades? Importantly, what needs to be done to help rebuild trust and ensure non-repetition of such irritants? A brief recap of events could help answer both.
Historically, between 1999 and 2004, the Vajpayee government is credited with taking the relationship between the two countries to a new high. The Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), was signed between the two countries in early 2004. They agreed to expand cooperation in three specific areas - civilian nuclear activities, civilian space programs and high technology trade.
However, a serious point of contention arose when in March 2005, Mr Narendra Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, became the first and till date only person, to be denied a visa under a relatively unknown 1998 US law. Mr Modi was denied a diplomatic visa and additionally his existing tourist cum business visa was also revoked.
In 2008, the BJP, which had actually laid the groundwork for the Civil Nuclear Agreement between the two countries, opposed it for not serving India's long term and strategic interests. The Wikileaks revelations and the BJP's strong reactions on various issues including exposes that American diplomats were privy to substantive information related to the cash-for-votes scandal, did not help bridge the gap of perceptions on either side. Effectively, the relationship between the BJP and the USA deteriorated from exuberant in the Vajpayee era to at best formal and at worst frosty in recent times.
On May 17, literally hours after the election results and signalling a feverish course correction, President Obama invited Prime Minister designate Narendra Modi to visit the United States at a mutually agreeable date to boost bilateral relations (possibly in September on the side-lines of the UNGA). However, even as the US is working with renewed energy to overcome what is perceived as a diplomatic blunder in shunning Mr Modi for almost a full decade, the NSA spying on the BJP is not exactly helpful to its cause.
So what could the possible future steps be to bridge the gap? The USA would do well to appreciate India as the world's largest functional democracy. Close to 800 million people (more than twice the population of the USA) exercise their franchise freely and fearlessly. Central to this is according institutionalised respect to the BJP, once again the ruling party of India.
Importantly, the US needs to put in place mechanisms that ensure nations and political parties such as the BJP are not blindly categorised in the same bracket as extremist organizations. Remote and inexperienced junior technicians and bureaucrats can be expected to commit such blunders, but surely more practiced representatives can prevent such embarrassing errors of judgement?
On December 27, 2013, after the court delivered its verdict on a 2002 riots case, Mr Arun Jaitley wrote about the "The Myopic American Stand". "It is time", he said, "that the Americans reflect on how they have boxed themselves into this untenable situation". The world is no longer as unipolar as some agencies in the US may prefer to believe. What is required is a new approach.
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