The United States has lifted its 12-year “boycott” of right-wing Indian nationalist politician Narendra Modi, who was blamed by some for fanning the flames of anti-Muslim bigotry during sectarian riots that erupted in his native Gujarat province in 2002 and killed more than 1,000 people. Following the deaths of 58 Hindu pilgrims on a burning train in the town of Godhra (allegedly set by Muslims), Hindus retaliated by murdering 69 people, mostly Muslims, at the Gulbarg Housing Society in Ahmedabad, in an multi-hour orgy of killing. The violence subsequently spread to other towns in Gujarat.
Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, denied any culpability at all but was widely condemned for failing to use his authority to prevent the killings. In 2012, a special investigations team appointed by India’s Supreme Court absolved Modi of any responsibility in the riots, although one of his former senior ministers was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for her role in the massacres.
Now in 2014, Modi will lead the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party in national elections, scheduled for later this spring. He is expected to defeat the incumbent Congress Party and thus likely become the prime minister of the world’s most populous democracy and rising global economic power. Consequently, Modi will become a force that Washington can no longer ignore. To that end, Nancy Powell, the U.S. ambassador to India will meet with Modi later this week, perhaps as early as Thursday, in Gandhinagar, the capital city of Gujarat, to discuss India’s relationship with the U.S. "We can confirm the appointment," a US embassy spokesman in India said, the Guardian reported. "This is part of our concentrated outreach to senior political and business leaders which began in November to highlight the US-India relationship."
The United Kingdom ended its own decade-long boycott of Modi in August 2012, just before he won statewide elections by a huge margin. The European Union has also done likewise. The Daily Telegraph reported that Modi has not had any official contact with US government figures since 2005, when he was denied a travel visa to visit the U.S.
A BJP official praised the thaw in relations between its leader and the U.S., citing that it signified confidence in Modi’s upcoming electoral triumph. “It’s [due to] the growing popularity of Narendra Modi in India and the fact that any future business with India is incomplete without engaging with him that the American's have come forward for a rapprochement," said the BJP’s Siddharth Nath Singh, according to the Telegraph. “The Americans have sought to meet him and we believe [neither] Modi [nor] the BJP… need any validation or vindication from [the] US. We see the meeting as a purely economic exercise and nothing more. There is no question of [him] seeking a US visa. The world, including the US, are abreast of the changing political realities - India has accepted Modi as its leader and now the world is doing the same.” The Hindu newspaper of India reported that Modi has also recently met with senior government officials from Beijing, as well as German Ambassador Michael Steiner and U.K. High Commissioner James Bevan.
Modi is currently campaigning across India, emboldened by polls that suggest he and the BJP will beat Congress, widely blamed for a slowing economy and an array of corruption scandals. Modi has drawn huge crowds and is a particular favorite of the business community and the urban middle classes who have commended him for Gujarat’s flourishing economy. Modi is not only a charismatic public speaker but scores points from much of the electorate for his modest background (he is the son of a tea-seller), in stark contrast to the wealthy and elite Gandhi family who rule Congress.
However, the Guardian noted, other senior BJP official downplayed the significance of Modi meeting with American government representatives, perhaps evincing a reluctance to imply any close ties between Modi and Washington, given some recent episodes of diplomatic tension among the two countries, including the arrest and detention of a lady diplomat in New York over visa fraud charges. "It is nothing special. It's just what all the diplomats do to be in touch with the economic and political leadership of the country. It is somehow a recognition that Modi is going to be the next prime minister of the country but it is Indian voters who are going to decide that," said Meenakshi Lekhi, BJP’s national spokesperson.
Another Indian media figure implied that the meeting was more important to the US than to Modi himself. "There was no urgency on the part of the BJP for this. There's a sense of eerie inevitability about it. Diplomats don't work in isolation and the context at the moment favors Modi. It's more for the US to explain than for him or his aides," said Swapan Dasgupta, a political commentator and former media adviser for the BJP.
Modi reportedly also enjoys popularity among the large Indian community in the U.S., particular among his fellow Gujaratis. He is also apparently admired by several US Republican lawmakers. In fact, in March 2013, a group of Republican Congressmen, including Representatives Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Aaron Schock of Illinois and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, made an “unofficial” trip to India and met with Modi in Gujarat and also expressed their eagerness to work with him.
Dr. Michael Kugelman, Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said in an interview that for the U.S., this really boils down to a very practical conclusion: the US-India relationship is simply too important to be held hostage by a stubborn U.S. government unwilling to let India's probable next prime minister visit the country. “If Modi becomes a head of state, the U.S. will not stand in the way of him coming to America,” Kugelman noted. “This is why Ambassador Powell is meeting with him -- to demonstrate that at the end of the day, the U.S. government does not want to be an obstruction.” In recent months, the only U.S. government agency that has loudly and repeatedly opposed a Modi visit to the U.S. has been the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “And that's telling,” Kugelman said.
But there are also good political reasons for Washington to reach out to Modi. “There is a very large and influential Indian diaspora in the U.S., and large portions of it support Modi and the BJP,” Kugelman explained. However, Kugelman commented that the U.S may privately prefer a Congress-led government in India, given that bilateral relations were relatively smooth (with some notable exceptions) during Congress' time in power, and given some U.S. concerns about the more hard-line elements of the BJP. “But ultimately Washington will work with either party, and will likely get along relatively well with whatever party is ruling the Indian government--and there's a very strong chance this will be the BJP,” he concluded.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.