From a visa ban on Narendra Modi after the 2002 Gujarat riots to the meeting in Gandhinagar between Modi and the British envoy, the European Union travelled a unique, if somewhat troubled, journey.
What is interesting is that the real breakthrough did not happen with the British in 2012. The credit for that should go to two other, more intrepid, members of the EU, Denmark and Sweden.
It was in 2008 that two European diplomats, Ole Poulsen of Denmark and Lars-Olof Lindgren of Sweden defied the EU visa ban to reach out to the then Gujarat chief minister.
Lindgren said, “I felt that as diplomats, it was our job to engage with all shades of opinion in India, specially important persons. A boycott did not serve our purpose.” Not everyone agreed, so Lindgren waited until Sweden passed on the EU chairmanship in 2009 before he and Poulsen started the outreach, with a Swedish business delegation to Gujarat.
In May 2011, Poulsen’s successor Freddy Svane received an invitation by Danish company Rockwool to attend the inauguration of their new facility in Dahej, Gujarat. Svane agreed, and at the inauguration met up with Modi, the first European ambassador to meet him. What did they talk about? Actually, renewable energy and energy efficiency. A lot of Modi’s focus and interest on energy and water solutions are the result of long conversations with experts from Denmark and other Scandinavian countries.
When contacted, Svane said, “I am really happy I opened up towards Modi. The EU boycott was wrong. In all my meetings with him, I have found him to be thoughtful and sincere, and very result-oriented.”
There was serious pushback from the EU, not least because by then, the US had put in place a visa ban on Modi under a category of religious intolerance which had only Modi on the list. According to sources in the Indian government, the UPA signalled quite strongly that it did not take kindly to such outreach either.
But the outreach paid off. At the Vibrant Gujarat summit in 2013, Svane was up there on the dais. And this week, when the baton of Gujarat passed on to Anandiben Patel, Svane was one of the few diplomats invited to witness the event.
The Scandinavians proved to be more pragmatic that the famously pragmatic British. And they were doing things in Gujarat that others were not — water management, for instance (a consortium of Danish companies started a pilot project in Rajkot to control leakages in water distribution), and renewable energy, specially solar.
Meanwhile, in the summer of 2012, the UK made the decision to turn its own policy around. In August 2012, British high commissioner James Bevan travelled to Gandhinagar to meet Modi, effectively ending the British boycott. Bevan then said, “Engagement is not endorsement; the job of diplomats is to meet people, to talk to people, to understand people, and including people that you may not agree with.”
Modi won his third term in 2012, sparking speculation he might be headed for New Delhi. Soon after, German ambassador Michael Steiner took the cue and reached out to Modi, despite opposition from Berlin and other important European capitals.
Separately, the French too joined in, with ambassador Francois Richier opening communication with Gujarat in 2012. Richier said, “In 2012, we planned cultural events in Gujarat as part of the Bonjour India festival (January-April 2013), including a major concert in Ahmedabad to which Mr Modi was invited. In the end, Mr Modi was held back in Delhi by an important BJP meeting… So we continued our contacts to organize an official visit in Gujarat that took place in October 2013. It was very productive.”
The big breakthrough happened on January 7, 2013 when Modi drove in to have lunch with EU ambassadors at Steiner’s residence. For many, it was a tough call.