New Delhi, Feb. 8: The prospect of Narendra Modi's quickened surge to the national centrestage has compelled the European Union (EU) nations to dissolve their cold shoulder to the Gujarat chief minister.
Forsaken for more than a decade for his alleged human rights stains from the protracted anti-Muslim violence of 2002, Modi was sought over for an extended working lunch by EU ambassadors here in early January, shortly after he won a third successive term in power.
Based on their assessment of the current, and changing, political drift, EU capitals and missions have increasingly sensed that they shouldn't get locked into a situation where they found themselves not in conversation with a man who could become India's elected Prime Minister.
German ambassador Michael Steiner, whose home banquet table was the venue for the meeting between Modi and almost the full complement of EU ambassadors on January 7, put an ethical, rather than political, frame on what he called "this new phase", though.
"We have always said we will not interfere in the ongoing election campaign in Gujarat and that we will take a fresh look after the elections," Steiner told summoned mediapersons on the back lawns of the German embassy this afternoon.
"That is exactly what we were doing, and talking to Mr Modi was part of that…. We respect democratic institutions of India, its elections and results and have full trust in its judicial system. It is because of this respect and trust that we are now in a new phase," Steiner said. He declined to take questions, or offer any more on what drove the EU decision.
Both sides had agreed ahead of the January engagement, which lasted over two hours, that it would be strictly off-book and Chatham House rules would apply ' no revelations, either of the meeting or of its contents.
The beans were spilled during a luncheon interaction with journalists by the EU ambassador Joao Cravinho yesterday. It could be anybody's guess whether it was an unwitting act, but it has left a fair number of his European colleagues embarrassed.
Ambassador Steiner of Germany, who played host, found it incumbent to own up post-haste and put an explanation on the meeting, however cryptic.
Part of the reason for this meditated thaw could well be that the EU, which invests India with expanding economic potential, didn't want to be stranded on a slow boat when other major nations (and business competitors) were already shedding inhibitions about Modi suo motu and reaching out.
The US, which refused Modi a visa in the years following the 2002 violence, has quietly but steadily upgraded its contact. The British publicised the expiry of their inhibitions mid-way through the Gujarat election campaign, with high commissioner James Bevan travelling across to meet Modi. Thereafter, Bevan led a high-voltage business delegation to the Vibrant Gujarat stage and anointed himself a "son of Gujarat".
EU sources said there had been growing restiveness in some member states about the "excommunication" of Modi and Gujarat, and they wanted the ice broken.
Spain and Denmark are understood to have been particularly anxious about "restoring" business-as-usual status and, EU sources said, were willing to break ranks on the issue.
This, the sources explained, was chiefly on two counts. One: ridden by economic downturn, European nations did not want to lose out on opportunities attached to Gujarat, which has been on the industrial fast-tract these past years. Two: they found the act of proscribing a democratically and repeatedly elected leader "ethically and morally untenable".
As one senior EU official put it: "India is a democratic country, not a banana republic, as outsiders dealing with India, it cannot be our business to pick and choose who we deal with. There was discomfort with that situation. We cannot make that judgement, it is ethically wrong for us to shut out a person who Gujaratis have repeatedly elected to office, and we have to respect that."
EU sources were at pains to stress, though, that their opening up to Modi "cannot be construed as endorsement or declaration of preference… what we are merely doing is re-assessing a situation in the light of the fact that Modi has been democratically elected time and again and there is, so far, nothing from the judicial system that attaches stigma to him. Ten years is a good time to re-assess".
As proof of their detachment from the Indian political process, the EU sources related the time-line for the invitation to Modi.
"We were very sure we did not want to, or even be seen as, trying to influence the election. The first feelers to him were sent out after the late vote in Gujarat had been cast and the invitation extended to him before the declaration of results. So even Modi could not have felt that we were doing it only because he had won another election," a source said.
The source and others were hard put to allay the sense, though, that the EU move is not calibrated along the new trajectory Narendra Modi is charting as prospective prime ministerial face of the main Opposition in the 2014 elections.
Asked what really had changed between 2007, when Modi won his last victory, and now, to prompt the "new phase", the EU source conceded that could be a matter of debate. "The fact, though, also is that it has been 10 years and there is no legal verdict against him and he has been endorsed by the people again and again, and now, very clearly, he is playing a national role which we have to take note of," the source added.