Modi Comes in From the Cold

The United States is finally cracking open the door to India's probable next leader. But it’s now on his terms.


In July 2013, a reporter asked Narendra Modi, the prime-ministerial candidate for India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in April’s general election, whether he would seek a visa to the United States after nine years of being denied entry. Modi smiled and replied, "I will make such a wonderful India that all Americans will stand in a queue to get a visa for India."

The United States, Modi seemed to suggest, should come to him — not the other way around. Turns out, that’s exactly what happened. In November, the U.S. ambassador to India, Nancy J. Powell, reached out to Modi and proposed to meet him in India’s capital, New Delhi, according to the Indian newspaper the Telegraph. But Modi insisted that wasn’t quite good enough and that he wanted Powell to come to Gandhinagar, the capital of India’s western state of Gujarat, which Modi has led since 2001. And so, on Feb. 13, Powell did — meeting with the self-described "Hindu nationalist" in his home in Gandhinagar. The message was clear: The United States is welcoming Modi in from the cold.

It is a radical turn of events. In February 2002, five months after Modi became chief minister of Gujarat, 59 Hindus died after Muslims attacked a train car in Gujarat. Retaliatory violence broke out, resulting in the deaths of over 1,200 people, most of them Muslim. Critics allege that Modi failed to protect innocent civilians and that the 2002 violence bore the markings of a pogrom. (Of India’s more than 1.2 billion people, roughly 80 percent are Hindu; most of the rest are Muslims.) As a result of this criticism, as well as a campaign by an eclectic coalition including evangelical Christian, Jewish, and Indian activists, in 2005 Modi became the first person in U.S. history to be denied a visa based on the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which stipulates that no foreign dignitary who has committed "violations of religious freedom" may enter the United States.

Joseph Grieboski, an activist and consultant who assisted with the campaign to deny Modi a visa, said that the language the U.S. government used to deny Modi a visa deserves attention. "The United States was clear not to implicate India or even Gujarat," he said. "It was that Modi himself — and not India — failed to protect his citizens." (Disclosure: I also worked on the campaign to deny Modi a visa.)

In the nine years since, Modi has not applied for entry into the United States, nor has he met with any U.S. officials at the ambassadorial rank or higher — until his recent meeting with Powell. In that same period, Modi has won re-election three times and has overseen Gujarat’s more than 10 percent average annual GDP growth, considerably higher that India’s national average. He has also championed its business potential, including the popular biennial investor’s summit Vibrant Gujarat. Big business in India favors Modi, especially in contrast to the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who is viewed as an ineffective and complacent steward of India’s economy.

Since winning his third term in December 2012, the 63-year-old Modi has emerged as one of the most popular, and polarizing, candidates India has ever seen — one who both wears the 2005 visa denial as a badge of honor yet also understands that U.S. recognition will help launder his image and advance his candidacy.

After news broke on Tuesday, Feb. 11, about the Powell-Modi meeting, many Indian publications began reporting that the meeting means Modi would now be granted a visa. However, U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki wasn’t so quick to leap to that conclusion, saying, "This is not a reflection of any change." If Modi does becomes prime minister, he will be eligible for a special category of U.S. visas, known as A-1, granted to heads of state and government. State Department and congressional staffers said privately that Modi is almost guaranteed to receive this visa should he win.

But debating the semantics of "change" is beside the point — a change is coming. Modi is only a few months away from possibly becoming India’s next leader. His nearest challenger is Rahul Gandhi, an inexperienced 43-year-old politician from the Indian National Congress party whose father, grandmother, and great-grandfather all served as India’s prime minister. And while a third party may split the vote, Modi appears to be leading in opinion polls.

In 2005, few in Washington imagined Modi’s rise. "When the United States denied Modi a visa, we never thought Modi would be a front-runner," said a former Capitol Hill colleague who was closely involved in the Modi debate and who asked to speak anonymously. "We also thought the Indian government would see the visa denial as a slap to the BJP and Modi, not to India." Modi, the colleague added, was viewed as a "fringe figure." A former Senate aide was blunter: "We wanted to stop Modi’s momentum."

This move was incredibly offensive to many Indians, who felt the United States had no right to pass judgment on what they viewed as an internal Indian affair. "To expect India not to be offended reveals how little India watchers in Washington really understand India," said a former Obama appointee, who asked to speak off the record. The United States continued to keep Modi at arm’s length. They seemed to hope India would forget about the 2005 visa denial if the United States simply did not mention it. A former Department of Defense staffer said that when Singh came to Washington in July 2005, "We were on strict orders not to talk about Modi."

Today, with Modi just months away from possibly assuming the leadership of the world’s largest democracy, not talking about him is not an option. So there’s a practical matter for the thaw, but some argue that there’s another factor at play: that the U.S. government under Barack Obama no longer prioritizes international religious freedom. Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, said these issues "have never been important in U.S. foreign policy, but they are less important under this administration than they have ever been."

But perhaps the most significant reason for the normalization of relations is that the legal case to tie him to the riots has fallen apart. In December 2013, a Gujarat court cleared Modi in the death of Ehsan Jafri, a Gujarati Muslim former member of Parliament who was killed in the riots. Many saw the case as the best chance to convict Modi for his role in the violence. "The resolution of the Jafri case seems to have been important in turning around the prospects for the [Powell-Modi] meeting," said Felice Gaer, a former commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

But religious intolerance remains a serious problem in India. In early February, Penguin India caved into pressure from Hindu activists and agreed to recall University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger’s 2009 book The Hindus: An Alternative History, which explains the role that traditionally marginalized groups, like women and untouchables, played in the Hindu tradition. The activists circulated a petition alleging that Doniger’s work is the "approach of a woman hungry of sex" (sic). And it goes both ways: In 2012, Salman Rushdie pulled out of his scheduled appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival after Muslim clerics in India objected to his attendance because of the depiction of Islam in his controversial 1988 book, The Satanic Verses.

This February, the Indian magazine Caravan ran a cover story on Hindu nationalist leader Swami Aseemanand, imprisoned for his role in a series of bombings that killed 119 people. The article claimed that the militant Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sanctioned the attacks; the magazine has since received threatening phone calls, and the story’s author, Leena Gita Reghunath, told the New York Times that she is no longer staying at home out of concerns for her safety.

These actions are, of course, not Modi’s doing. But this is the political climate Modi represents — one that the United States naively hoped it could change by denying Modi a visa. The United States will have to scramble now to repair relations with India, but it may be too late. In many ways Modi now has what he always wanted — the United States on his turf.

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