Cablegate: Modi Case Reflects Domestic Political Divide
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 NEW DELHI 002140
E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/21/2015
TAGS: CVIS PREL PHUM PGOV KIRF IN
SUBJECT: MODI CASE REFLECTS DOMESTIC POLITICAL DIVIDE
REF: A. NEW DELHI 2095 B. NEW DELHI 2094 C. NEW DELHI 2090 D. NEW DELHI 2081
Classified By: DCM Robert O. Blake, Jr. for Reasons 1.4 (B, D)
1. (C) Summary: Aside from limited and localized protests in Gujarat and scattered nationalist editorial comment, BJP efforts to build a domestic political issue out of the Modi visa revocation seem to be dissipating. Few outside the Sangh Parivar have risen to the bait and responded to BJP calls to make this into an India/USA confrontation. In private conversations with us, Indians have expressed overwhelming support for the US decision. Initial shock at the denial is now turning to embarrassment. Modi harmed himself by making vitriolic anti-American statements that are not resonating well. With Modi's political fortunes fading, the BJP leadership may decide at the appropriate time to quietly cast him aside. The big loser could be Party President LK Advani, who may have been too quick and too outspoken in his support of Modi. We will address BJP internal politics septel. End Summary.
Deep Divide in Gujarat
2. (C) Gujarat CM Narendra Modi has been teetering on the edge of political ignominy for at least a year. In 2004, then Prime Minister Vajpayee, with the concurrence of many within his party, pushed for Modi's dismissal, but lacked sufficient determination to deliver the final blow. Just prior to the flap over Modi's visa denial, 60 members of the BJP parliamentary party in Gujarat called on him to step down, and the numbers were growing daily (Mumbai Septel). The BJP dissidents argued that Modi's dictatorial and arbitrary style of functioning was hurting the BJP in Gujarat, which could lose the next election there if Modi were not dismissed.
3. (U) Initial press reports had claimed that the visa incident bought Modi a reprieve from his opponents in Gujarat. The ""Hindustan Times"" argued that, ""the dissidents' campaign against Modi is bound to be weakened, at least for some time."" One dissident noted that, ""Modi has proven to be lucky one again,"" as we ""will have to lie low."" Another maintained that, ""Now that Mr. Modi has been denied a US visa, he has again become a hero in Gujarat...this has come as a reprieve for him.""
4. (U) Even though the visa controversy is only days old, the dissidents are already coming back in strength. Dissident leader Vallabh Kathiria indicated on March 19, that Modi's reprieve would prove short-lived, as the dissidents were in no mood to give up their agitation, noting that, ""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.""
BJP Turns to America Baiting
5. (U) Among the BJP's national leadership, no figure is more closely connected with Modi than Party President and former DPM LK Advani, who quickly came to Modi's defense. At a Modi rally in Ahmedabad on March 20, Advani was the most outspoken, charging the USG with treating India as a ""pushover,"" and warning that ""this is not the end, but just the beginning of the battle for vindicating the self respect of the country."" Advani urged Indians to hold similar pro-Modi rallies across the country to ""awaken the nation, so that one ever dares to treat it as a pushover.""
6. (U) At the rally, Modi launched new anti-American attacks on the USG in Advani's presence, claiming that the USG revoked his visa at the behest of an anti-Hindu lobby in the US upset over Gujarat's passage of an anti-conversion law. Modi further claimed the USG denied him a visa to prevent Gujarat from working with Iran to bring a gas pipeline to India, as ""the US was afraid this would lead to Gujarat and in turn India, becoming an economic power."" Although not as outspoken as Advani, other BJP/NDA leaders also pledged support to Modi, including George Fernandes, BJP General Secretary Arun Jaitley, and Manohar Joshi.
Deep Divides Between the BJP and Congress
7. (U) The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was largely silent after presenting a formal protest on March 18 (Ref B). The BJP was quick to thank the GOI for its ""support"" of Modi, with Advani expressing gratitude to PM Manmohan Singh for his ""bold stand"" against a ""powerful country like the US against hurting India's pride."" Congress Spokesman Anand Sharma quickly pointed out that the GOI protested the treatment of ""a duly elected chief minister who holds a constitutional post,"" but this ""does not dilute its opposition against the BJP leader."" Sharma also declined to ""condemn"" the US action or characterize it as an ""insult"" to India. Separately, a senior party strategist close to Sonia Gandhi contacted PolCouns on March 20 to make sure we understood the UPA was just ""doing what it had to"" in demonstrating support for Modi, and to ensure this would not detract from Secretary Rice's successful visit. The Congress agenda, our contact added, is to make this issue disappear from public view as quickly as possible.
8. (C) The Modi incident comes at a time when the political divide between Congress and the BJP is deep and growing. The two parties are fiercely contesting state governments in Goa, Bihar, and Jharkhand, and Parliament has almost ceased to function due to BJP obstructionism. The BJP has refused to cooperate with Congress on economic measures even when they are endorsed by both parties, including the new Patent Law (Ref D), and a BJP threat not to execute the Value Added Tax system scheduled for implementation on April 1.
The Secular/Communal Divide
9. (C) Modi and his followers within the BJP have been attempting to use nationalism to rally mass support around Modi, painting his visa revocation as, ""against all principles of democracy and human rights,"" ""an ""insult to the Constitution of India, which infringes on India's sovereignty,"" and an ""audacious step that has been taken specifically for deriding and insulting India."" Media reports indicate, however, that these arguments are having little impact outside Modi's core supporters within the BJP and Sangh Parivar.
10. (C) A broad spectrum of ""secular"" groups, including political parties, NGOs and newspapers, have failed to take the bait, condemning Modi and applauding the USG move, despite the risk of being blamed ""unpatriotic."" The Rashtriya Janata Dal, for example, stated that, ""Mr. Modi is an Indian, so we have no choice but to tolerate his presence here, but other sovereign nations do not have to allow religious bigots to enter."" The leader of the Congress delegation in the Gujarat State Assembly suggested that his Chief Minister, ""refrain from going abroad,"" as he ""remained constantly surrounded by controversy.""
11. (C) The GOI has also come under criticism for its rush to support visa issuance to Modi. Press reports indicate that ""at least 35"" groups representing overseas Indians appealed to the PM ""to look at this not through a nationalistic lens or as a violation of protocol, but to consider the larger issues involved."" Most editorials pointed out that sovereign nations have the right to deny visas to human rights abusers, and that India should have resolved this issue, the Indian legal system should have prosecuted Modi, the BJP leadership should have dismissed him, and the UPA failed to push for quick prosecution of riot related cases after coming to power in New Delhi.
12. (C) BJP and Sangh Parivar calls for Indians to rally around Modi have not cowed his opponents, who continue to demand his dismissal. The generally anti-America ""Hindu"" characterized the visa episode as ""an additional setback"" for Modi, predicting that he is ""in for a long hot summer."" While the ""Times of India"" urged the BJP to ""realize that it can't shield its poster boy of hate under the pretext of electoral mandate,"" and leading Indian columnist Pankaj Vohra urged the party to ""seize the opportunity and replace Modi before he causes any further embarrassment.""
13. (U) Private comments by a wide range of Indians to Embassy officers show there has been strong support by most Indians for the USG's decision. One former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, for example, told DCM that ""Nine five percent of India stands with you.""
14. (C) Modi's political problems continue to grow, and his options narrow. The BJP initially hoped to use Modi's visa problems to overcome deep internal divisions and rally public support. Any gains are likely to be short-lived, as Modi's continued presence as a BJP leader exacerbates party divisions. Rather than silencing his critics, the visa case is providing them with ammunition, sullying the BJP's reputation and keeping it on the defensive at a time when it hoped to make political gains against Congress. Within Gujarat, emotions are currently running high, and Modi has won a reprieve, but it is likely to be short-lived. As attention shifts from the visa issue, his opponents will re-emerge.
15. (C) 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. Both Congress and the BJP particularly value the US-India relationship and Modi's America bashing has made many nervous. Both parties will likely move to ensure that the negative impact on the relationship from this incident is minimal. With Modi's position deteriorating, the BJP leadership could decide to quietly push him aside at the appropriate time. This could become a further liability for Advani, who the senior party leader most visibly supporting Modi.