U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell is scheduled to sit down with Modi after requesting a meeting with Gujarat’s long-time leader as “part of our concentrated outreach to senior political and business leaders which began in November to highlight the US-India relationship,” according to a U.S. Embassy spokesperson.
The move comes close on the heels of an unusually caustic spat between Washington and New Delhi over the unceremonious arrest in December of an Indian diplomat in New York. Though tensions have eased since former deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade was repatriated to India, the U.S. clearly felt a little TLC was in order with its long-time ally, seen both as a counterpoint to China and a crucial player in regional security given that most NATO troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan this year.
Reaching out to Modi was an interesting choice. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hoping to unseat the ruling Congress Party and its coalition partners in this spring’s polls, and many observers say the party is on track to do just that. Indian voters are weary of the ongoing allegations of corruption and inefficacy that have dogged the coalition in recent years. With frontman Modi promising change, the Hindu-nationalist BJP has dominated the start of the campaign season. Early opinion polls have tipped the opposition party to win the most seats in the upcoming parliamentary vote, though no party is expected to win the clear majority needed to go it alone. Many question whether the BJP will be able to form a government with the charismatic but controversial Modi at the helm.
That’s why Powell’s meeting with Modi has grabbed New Delhi’s attention. (The Embassy did not comment on the date of the meeting.) Modi, who has been the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat since 2001, has long been a controversial figure in Indian politics for his alleged role in inciting, or at least tolerating, bloody sectarian riots that took place in the state months after he came to office. More than 1000 people, most of them Muslim, were killed in the demonstrations. Modi has always denied any wrongdoing in the riots, and has been cleared by Indian courts of the same. But in 2005, the State Department revoked Modi’s U.S. visa, citing his responsibility for state institutions at the time of the unrest. The government has since said Modi is free to apply for a visa to visit the U.S., but as his profile in Indian politics has grown, a group of U.S. lawmakers has lobbied to deny him entry should he apply.
Dilip Cherian, a communications consultant and commentator in New Delhi, points out that if Modi leads the BJP to victory this spring and ends up as India’s next prime minister, debate over whether the U.S. will grant Modi a visa may be a moot point. “Prime ministers only go to America if they’re invited,” says Cherian. “If a guy gets to be PM of India in a democratic process, the chances are very low he would not be invited to America.”
The impact of the upcoming meeting may be greater on the election process itself. Whatever it may or may not be intended to signal, many will perceive the sit down as a stamp of approval from America, helping whisk away lingering doubts that voters — as well as dissenters in his own party — may have had about Modi’s acceptance by global allies.