Americans underestimated Modi

The US embassy, which had generally proven itself a capable and astute observer of Indian politics, proved just how disconnected the embassy officials were in their assessment of Narendra Modi.

In cables sent immediately after the US refused visa to the Gujarat Chief minister in 2005, the embassy is shown to be in touch with Modi’s rival groups within the BJP in Gujarat. The officials also were wide off the mark in predicting Modi’s fortunes and future, as later events proved.

“Modi’s political problems continue to grow, and his options narrow… With Modi’s political fortunes fading, the BJP leadership may decide at the appropriate time to quietly cast him aside… As attention shifts from the visa issue, his opponents will re-emerge,” ambassador David Mulford said in a cable sent in March 2005.

The prediction would perhaps go down as the most flawed in the series of conjectures about Indian politics that American diplomats had sent to their headquarters in the US through diplomatic cables, revealed by Wikileaks.

In addition, a cable sent around the same time painted Rahul Gandhi as a person with “personality problems,” though the US ambassador was careful to point out that he may yet emerge as a leader due to the formidable media machine at his disposal.

On Modi, however, the US seemed to have been misled by the Gujarat chief minister’s detractors, in an episode reminding one of how Saddam Hussein’s rivals in Iraq convinced the Americans that he was working on weapons of mass destruction. The Americans soon invaded Iraq to not only discover that there were no such weapons, but also that they had been misled by a group of anti-Saddam politicians led by Ahmed Chalabi.

The cable proved that the embassy was in touch with BJP leaders within Gujarat who were opposed to Modi. Modi, who belongs to the Other Backward Castes or OBC category, had to overcome initial resistance from members of his own party, particularly those who saw him as a Swayamsevak grown too big.

The cable went on, “Even though the visa controversy is only days old, the dissidents are already coming back in strength.”

Mulford said that despite its public position expressing disappointment about the visa denial to Modi, the Congress-led government is not likely to follow the matter through.

“The UPA government having “”gone through the motions”” by protesting the USG decision, is unlikely to ratchet up the pressure further. Congress has long viewed Modi as a vulnerable target and will, at the appropriate time, use the visa incident as further ammunition against him,” he predicted.

It then quoted “dissident leader” Vallabh Kathiria indicated as saying that Modi sudden surge in popularity, due to the visa denial, “would prove short-lived,” as they were in no mood to give up their agitation to bring down Modi.

“People will not remember this forever. There’s no pro-Modi tempo in Delhi. Our campaign is slow and steady. It may just take a little longer,” the cable quoted him as saying.

“Modi has proven to be lucky one again.. we will have to lie low,” it quoted another unnamed “dissident leader.”

“The big loser could be Party President LK Advani, who may have been too quick and too outspoken in his support of Modi,” Mulford added, showing the limitations of the Americans’ appreciation of Indian politics.