On June 8, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, the fifth Indian prime minister to do so. It will be a historic moment in the career of the 65-year-old politician, born the son of a tea seller in western India, a stunning turnaround for a man once banned from entering the United States.
Modi, a Hindu nationalist, was denied a visa to enter the United States in 2005 on religious-freedom grounds, stemming from allegations that he tacitly supported Hindu extremists during Hindu-Muslim riots in his home state in 2002. A panel appointed by the Indian Supreme Court eventually ruled that there was no evidence to charge Modi with a crime, but the incident has continued to haunt his career, even after he became prime minister in 2014.
Here is a look at his extraordinary rise:
Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat when 59 Hindu pilgrims returning from a religious site were killed in a fire inside their train blamed on a Muslim mob. This sparked days of rioting in which more than 1,000 were killed, many of them Muslims. Human rights groups accused Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of essentially ignoring killings by its Hindu extremist allies.
Modi applied for and was denied a diplomatic visa to travel to the United States to address a hotel owners association and business leaders in March 2005. U.S. officials said at the time that he was excluded under a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act that "makes any government official who was responsible for or directly carried out at any time particularly severe violations of religious freedom ineligible for a visa.”
Modi remained a popular leader of Gujarat and was reelected to that post in 2007. In an interview with The Washington Post, he revealed the seeds of his national ambitions by turning away from sectarian rhetoric and emphasizing development. He launched ambitious plans to electrify his state and brought in millions of dollars in foreign investment.
"Why even talk about 2002? We are almost in 2008. It's the past. What does it matter?" Modi said in the interview. "My focus is only on development. It starts with development. It ends with development. And that is what I will talk about." He eventually served as Gujarat's chief minister from 2001 to 2014.
Modi tried to further soften his image with his eye on the national job. He showed little remorse about his past in an interview with The Post, saying, "I have not done anything wrong, and I am committed to the human cause."
He added, "I want to convey to the whole global world: Please try to understand, you appreciate our progress, you appreciate our development, but beyond development and progress, the real strength of Gujarat is peace, harmony and unity."
Modi launched a national campaign for prime minister, incorporating Western-style campaign strategy and tactics for the first time in India, including the canny use of social media and other messaging — even a hologram of himself beamed to large enthusiastic crowds.
Modi and the BJP scored an impressive general election victory — taking a majority of seats in the lower house of Parliament for the first time in years. President Obama put the visa issue to rest by calling Modi to congratulate him on his victory and inviting him to the White House. At his swearing-in, Modi made headlines by inviting all the leaders of neighboring South Asian nations, including rival Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.
Modi made his first triumphant visit to the United States, where he had a private dinner with Obama, toured the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial with the president and headlined a program at Madison Square Garden attended by more than 18,000 cheering members of the Indian diaspora.
Modi launched a wide-ranging foreign-travel schedule, showcasing India as an investment destination for the world. He is often criticized as globe-trotting but defends his travels by saying that he must shore up foreign investment to build infrastructure such as the high-speed railways, bridges and roads that India needs, as well as engage the highly educated and affluent Indian diaspora.
Modi returned to the United States for the second time, this time to meet with Silicon Valley leaders such as Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai to win support for his Digital India campaign, a plan to link millions of Indians with the Internet and digital government services.
Modi is expected to arrive in the United States on Monday, meet with Obama at the White House on Tuesday and address a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday.