Recently, the U.S. delivered a Valentine to Narendra Modi, the man who wants to be India’s next Prime Minister. Ambassador Nancy Powell trekked to his home in Gujarat and although she was the one presented with flowers, Mr. Modi was the greater beneficiary of the meeting…
It marked a break in the ice between the Gujarat Chief Minister and the world’s largest economy, which has refused him entry after religious riots in his State in 2002. Like a third wheel in a romance, India’s ruling Congress party tried to play down the significance of the encounter between its rival and the U.S. – a country with which it has worked closely during its 10 years in power. “Did we celebrate when he didn’t get a visa? Should we be depressed that there is a meeting?” asked Salman Khurshid, India’s Foreign Minister, in a televised interview. “The U.S. is entitled to hold meetings to understand the dynamics of Indian politics.”
But this was not just any meeting with any leader. Opinion polls show Congress is unlikely to win a third term in power. Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party are far ahead in the race and the polarising politician is the frontrunner to become India’s Prime Minister after general elections this summer. The U.S. has struggled to explain why it has grown interested in Mr. Modi just in time for elections, after spurning him for years. It has sought to parry suggestions that the meeting was an acknowledgment that Mr. Modi might be India’s next Prime Minister and denied accusations that human rights issues are being sidelined for politics. The State Department said there was no change in its visa position.
“This meeting was part of the U.S. Mission’s outreach to senior leaders of India’s major political parties in advance of the upcoming national elections,” the U.S.embassy in India said in a statement. The embassy did not say what Ms. Powell and Mr. Modi discussed. The BJP said their campaign leader hadn’t applied for entry in the U.S. and was focused on the election. The ambassador was set to meet non-profits and U.S. and Indian businesses in Gujarat, the U.S. embassy said, adding, “Her discussions focus on the importance of the U.S.-India relationship, regional security issues, human rights, and American trade and investment inIndia.”
As Mr. Modi’s political star has risen, Congress has sought to keep the public focus on his human rights record, particularly the 2002 riots in which over 1,000 people died, most of them Muslims. They have cast Mr. Modi as divisive and incapable of leading a religious and culturally diverse country such as India. A court in December said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Mr. Modi, emboldening the politician’s supporters. But Congress says the issue isn’t closed because the verdict is being challenged in a higher court. The BJP’s spokespeople have pointed to Mr. Modi’s growing rapport with representatives of a number of countries, including China, the U.K., Australia, Malaysia and Canada. The U.S. is just the newest addition, they say. “We attach no extra importance to this meeting,” Meenakshi Lekhi, a spokeswoman for the BJP, said. “People of this country will decide who the Prime Minister will be, not anybody else.”