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Hither and Yon

Dancing to India's New Tune....

By Donald Kirk

NEW DELHI – The United States has to go through a skillfully choreographed diplomatic dance as a prelude to making up with India's incoming prime minister, Narendra Modi.

That's because Washington refused for more than a decade to grant a visa to Modi for his failure as chief minister of Gujarat, the prosperous state southwest of Delhi, to stop anti-Muslim rioting and killing there in 2002.

The U.S. was not alone in its exclusion of Modi. A number of other countries, including the United Kingdom, also believed they could punish him for his dereliction even though an Indian commission cleared him of wrongdoing.

Now that Modi is rising to the pinnacle of leadership of the world's second most populated country and largest democracy, at the crossroads of conflict in the new Great Game for Asia, everybody's changing their tune. The U.S. is saying Modi as chief of state can have a visa, and President Obama would love to see him.

diplomacy in India, uncertain and sometimes heavy-handed, bears a certain similarity to the ups and downs of U.S. diplomatic relations with Korea.

Much as American diplomats disapproved of Park Chung-hee during his presidency in the 1960s and 1970s, they had to court him for the sake of the U.S. -Korean alliance.

The same logic prevailed during the presidency of his successor, General Chun Doo-hwan, even after Chun's brutal suppression of the Gwangju revolt 34 years ago this month.

And then the U.S. faced quite different problems in getting along with Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-hyun during the decade of the Sunshine policy with North Korea that got Kim the Nobel peace prize after he had proffered hundreds of millions of dollars to persuade Kim Jong-il to invite him to Pyongyang for the June 2000 summit.

Theoretically, though, Modi should be easier to get along with than any of the South Korean leaders with whom the U.S. has often been on uneasy terms.

Unlike the leaders of so many nasty dictatorships who've risen to power in coups or tainted elections, he's roaring into office for a five-year term on the basis of about the most stunning success at the polls in Indian history.

Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party won a clear-cut majority of seats in the lower house of the Indian parliament that gets to vote for prime minister.

He's a capitalist who's promising to revive the Indian economy from the doldrums of corruption and disillusionment. He rose from a relatively poor background to displace the Congress Party, a dynasty started by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and still led by the Italian-born widow of Nehru's grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, prime minister for five turbulent years in the 1980s.

Modi, however, may be in no rush to go Washington and meet President Obama. Some people I've spoken to here say Obama should come here first, paying obeisance to the man whom the U.S. had treated so rudely.

Then again, the Americans may have their reasons for cooling it on Modi. He's described himself as a "Hindu nationalist," an unabashed exponent of the Hindu majority.

India's Muslim minority, though not on the verge of revolt, is not going to like him. Yes, BJP candidates won an overwhelming majority of seats in the parliament. No, not one of them is Muslim.

Other considerations, however, come to the fore. The U.S. , along with Russia, is a major source of India's arms. The U.S. has to play India against China, with which the Americans are on increasingly bad terms as China expands its power from the Yellow Sea to the East China Sea to the South China Sea.

Then there's Pakistan, to which both China and the U.S. provide arms while Pakistan and India remain at daggers drawn especially along a line of control in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

policy in the India-Pakistan standoff appears uncertain and faltering while U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan and Pakistan faces Taliban and Al Qaeda revolt.

The Great Game has relevance for Korea and Japan. Both have tremendous investment in India, and South Korea is eager to become a player in arms exports to India. The relationship has a lot to do with worries about China, which supplies no weapons to India while cozying up to Pakistan.

India's arms suppliers share in common another problem – hassles and delays in investing in India. For the Americans, the Indian bureaucracy bears parallels with Korea, where the trade imbalance with the U.S. is getting worse despite the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

All of which means Obama and Modi will have a lot to talk about whenever they meet ― the sooner the better.

Columnist Donald Kirk has returned to India for a brief visit after spending most of last year in New Delhi researching Indian foreign policy. He's at kirkdon@yahoo.com .
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