Ahmedabad: Signalling a thaw in the nine-year American boycott of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi ahead of general elections in India, US ambassador Nancy Powell on Thursday met the man who has become the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate, offered him flowers and shook hands.
The meeting took place at the Gandhinagar residence of Modi, who in 2005 was denied a visa to visit the US because of allegations that he had a role to play in instigating communal violence in Gujarat three years earlier.
A state government official said the meeting between Modi and Powell was positive and both agreed that India and the US were “natural partners”. Powell praised the economic development of Gujarat and its investment climate. Modi spoke about the India-US strategic partnership and how it can be strengthened, the official said on condition of anonymity.
Modi also used the occasion to bring up the case of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, who in December was arrested in New York on charge of visa fraud and for under-paying her Indian maid. The Gujarat chief minister said such incidents were capable of impairing relationship between the countries and should not recur.
Powell assured Modi that the US government was fully committed to resolving the Khobragade issue at the earliest, a Gujarat government statement said.
Powell also said she was impressed by the development she saw in Gujarat and that American businesses were pleased with the speed of decision-making and clear procedures in place in the state, the statement said.
A US media statement said that the meeting was part of the US outreach to senior leaders of major political parties ahead of the upcoming general elections that are due by April-May. Powell’s talks with Modi focused on the importance of the US-India relationship, regional security, human rights, and US trade and investment links
with India, it said.
“The United States and India are moving forward with a strategic partnership that is broad and deep,” the statement said.
The meeting effectively ends the pariah status that Modi acquired in the international community in the aftermath of the 2002 communal riots, sparked by the burning of a train car that left 58 Hindu pilgrims dead. A Gujarat lower court in December cleared him of a complicit role in the riots that left some 1,000 people dead.
Breaking almost 12 years of silence on the riots, Modi wrote on his official blog the next day that “the mindless violence of 2002” had left him “shaken to the core”.
A travel ban was imposed on Modi by the US, UK and some other European nations after the riots. The US denied him a diplomatic visa in 2005 when Modi wanted to visit the country to attend a function organized by non-resident Indians. The US embassy even revoked his existing tourist/business visa, citing “severe violations of religious freedom”.
The US attempt to mend fences with Modi follows surveys that have shown the BJP under him is the frontrunner in the 2014 general election. Last year, Britain ended a 10-year diplomatic boycott imposed on Modi, followed by Germany and other European Union (EU) nations.
India and the US share close commercial and strategic ties, with two-way trade amounting to almost $100 billion.
Despite the US government boycott, Modi’s government has been engaging with US businesses. The Indian subsidiary of US auto maker Ford Motor Co. is setting up its second factory in the country at Sanand, Gujarat that is due to open this year.
General Motors Co. already has a production facility at Halol in Gujarat.
Clinton Climate Initiative has helped Gujarat identify locations to set up a solar park, billed as Asia’s largest, at Charanka village near Mehsana in 2012.
Ron Somers, representing the US India Business Council (USIBC), called Gujarat’s progress “stunning” at the 2013 Vibrant Gujarat investment summit—a biennial event to attract investment.
The US State Department had on Wednesday clarified that regardless of the meeting between Modi and Powell, there was “no change” in Washington’s visa policy or in its “strong advocacy for human rights around the world”.
Still, Powell’s meeting with Modi is a pragmatic move by the US government to engage with a politician who could be the future prime minister of India, said Zahir Janmohamed, a freelance writer and former US Congress aide.
“This is not a policy shift of the US,” he said. “The US can no longer maintain a position of isolation over Modi. The meeting was more about India-US relationship rather than the visa issue. Also, the fact that the meeting happened in Gandhinagar, as Modi would have wanted it, and not at the embassy office in New Delhi shows that the US really wants to engage with Modi before he assumes a national role.”
A cable sent on 2 November 2006 by Michael S. Owen, then US consul general in Mumbai, and leaked by Wikileaks referred to Modi’s growing potential as a national leader of his party and showered praise on Gujarat’s economic progress.
The cable cited the successful way Modi had branded himself as an “incorruptible” politician and “effective administrator” and said the US needed to engage with Modi to “deliver a clear message on human rights and religious freedom directly”.