NEW DELHI — The U.S. government’s envoy in India ended a nine-year diplomatic standoff on Thursday by meeting with Narendra Modi, a controversial Hindu politician who could be India’s next prime minister if his party wins in the national elections this year.
Washington had kept Modi at arm’s length, declining to give him a visa to visit the United States because of his alleged role in fanning religious riots in 2002. But Modi’s rising domestic popularity in the run-up to national elections appears to have forced a thaw in his relations with the United States.
The hour-long meeting between U.S. Ambassador Nancy Powell and Modi, the business-friendly chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, made headlines in India. Many hailed it as a key stamp of approval for one of India’s most polarizing politicians.
The Times of India on Wednesday called it the end of the “9-year cold war.”
A statement from the U.S. Embassy said the meeting was part of Powell’s “outreach to senior leaders of India’s major political parties in advance of the upcoming national elections.”
The ambassador will meet U.S. and Indian businesses and nongovernmental groups during her visit to Gujarat to discuss bilateral ties, regional security issues, human rights and trade, the statement said.
Even though Modi has won three consecutive elections, the stigma of his alleged complicity in the deadly Hindu-Muslim riots that left hundreds of Muslims dead 11 years ago continues to plague him. Global human rights groups said that Modi had looked the other way while angry mobs targeted Muslims in reprisal attacks after 58 Hindu pilgrims and activists died in a train fire that Muslims were suspected of starting.
But even as legal cases against the 63-year-old politician piled up, he carefully crafted for himself an image of a pro-business modernizer drawing international companies such as Ford, General Motors and Suzuki to set up factories in Gujarat. As foreign investors praised Modi for delivering impressive economic growth in his state, Western governments had to slowly shed their unease. Britain reengaged with Modi in November 2012, a move quickly followed by other European nations. But ending his pariah status with the United States took longer. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom asked in 2012 that he not be issued a visa.
Last year, an India Supreme Court-appointed special investigation team absolved Modi of any wrongdoing in the riots, and a lower court in Gujarat upheld the ruling. A congressional delegation of lawmakers from Illinois, Wyoming and Washington state then met Modi in Gujarat.
“How long could the United States government continue this standoff? Modi is an important democratically elected leader; he advocates an aggressive business-friendly model of economic growth and wants to build India as an economic counter to China,” said Manisha Priyam, the India coordinator for research on state and local elections for the London School of Economics and Political Science. “When the Indian courts cleared Modi’s name in the riots case, it just became easier for the U.S. to engage.”
But the U.S. government on Wednesday was quick to snuff out speculation in India that the meeting would automatically lead to a lifting of Modi’s visa ban.
“When individuals apply for a visa, their applications are reviewed in accordance with U.S. law and policy. This is not a reflection of any change,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, according to the Press Trust of India. “This is simply a meeting happening on the ground in India. It’s not a reflection of anything else than outreach to a broad range of officials.”
Still, the sit-down serves as a “boost of adrenaline for Modi’s election campaign in India and vindicates him in many ways,” Priyam said.
Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the national opposition party, have been leading significantly in recent opinion polls over the ruling Congress party, which has been weighed down by a series of corruption allegations and runaway inflation.
Modi, the son of a train station tea vendor, is vying for power with Rahul Gandhi, 43-year-old scion of the powerful political dynasty that has dominated the Congress party.
To emphasize Modi’s humble beginnings, the BJP launched a nationwide “chat-over-tea” program with the candidate Wednesday. He sat in a roadside tea stall in Gujarat and took questions, via satellite link, from ordinary citizens at hundreds of similar stalls around the country.
For the Congress party in India, Powell’s meeting with Modi is a political setback, analysts said. In January, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accused Modi of presiding over the “massacre of citizens” in 2002 and said he would be “disastrous” for India if he was chosen as prime minister. On Wednesday, India’s foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, a senior Congress party leader, compared the 2002 riots to the Holocaust and said he hoped the United States would treat Modi accordingly.
The BJP leaders said Modi’s meeting with Powell came at the right time and will help Modi’s image among voters.
“His supporters will see that Modi did not bow down to the United States for approval,” said a senior leader in the BJP, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “And that works well for the Indian voter sentiments.”