WASHINGTON – The U.S. ambassador to India plans to meet Narendra Modi, the main opposition candidate for prime minister, an official said Monday, signaling a turnaround after years of shunning him over anti-Muslim riots.
Ambassador Nancy Powell’s encounter with the Hindu nationalist leader would put the United States in line with European nations and Australia, which have already ended a boycott of Modi amid growing indications that he will take the helm of the world’s largest democracy in elections due by the end of May.
A State Department official confirmed an appointment between Modi and Powell, without specifying a date.
“This is part of our concentrated outreach to senior political and business leaders which began in November to highlight the U.S.-India relationship,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Human rights groups say that Modi, the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, turned a blind eye to riots in 2002 that killed up to 2,000 people, most of them Muslims.
The United States in 2005 revoked a visa for Modi under a domestic law that bars entry by any foreign official seen as responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom.”
Modi has denied wrongdoing and investigations have cleared him of personal blame, although one of his former ministers was jailed for life for instigating the killing of 97 Muslims.
The United States and India have built a growing relationship since estrangement in the Cold War, with most U.S. lawmakers supportive of ties with New Delhi.
But Modi has faced opposition from an unlikely mix of left-leaning members of the U.S. Congress active on human rights and conservatives concerned over the status of evangelical Christians.
A congressional aide said a meeting with Powell would send a signal of U.S. openness on issuing a visa — an issue on which the United States has little way of changing course unless Modi again applies to travel to the United States.
“A meeting with the ambassador could be a way of signaling, ‘You’ll get a visa,’ without having to say it, which she can’t,” the aide told said on condition of anonymity.
Modi has sought to portray himself as a business-savvy leader who can champion India’s economy and tackle corruption after a decade of rule by the left-leaning Congress party.
If elected prime minister, Modi would be highly unlikely to experience hassles with travel to the United States, which generally allows visits by leaders of friendly countries. For example, President Barack Obama invited his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta, charged by the International Criminal Court over post-election violence in 2007 and 2008, to a U.S.-Africa summit in August.
But some U.S. officials are believed to have worried that bitterness over the past visa rejection would cloud relations with Modi if he becomes prime minister.
“Officials at the White House and State Department are acutely aware that the prospect of a Modi prime ministership would create some real awkwardness for the United States. Here we have a major strategic partner, with whom we have a robust and growing relationship, but whose future leader is not allowed on U.S. soil,” said Milan Vaishnav, an India expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“A lot of the pressure comes from the private sector, which says that India is a big market for us, it’s an area of growth and opportunity, and if our policy doesn’t change, U.S. firms could be at a competitive disadvantage compared with European businesses,” he added.
Concerns over personal treatment are not new to the U.S.-India relationship. In December, the two countries went through one of their worst crises in years when U.S. authorities arrested a New York-based Indian diplomat on charges of underpaying her servant and lying on the worker’s visa form.
Indian lawmakers and commentators accused U.S. authorities of humiliating the diplomat through a strip-search. The row abated a month ago when the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, was allowed to return to India just as she was indicted.
Both governments have since voiced hope at moving forward. But the United States earlier Monday renewed one rift when it announced it would take India to the World Trade Organization in hopes of opening up its booming solar power industry.