The US is to end its boycott of Narendra Modi, the controversial leader of India’s Hindu nationalist opposition, weeks ahead of a general election that could see him become prime minister of the world’s largest democracy.
Nancy Powell, US ambassador to New Delhi, is expected to meet Mr Modi within days in Gandhinagar, capital of the state of Gujarat, where he is chief minister. European governments have already restored ties with Mr Modi.
“We can confirm the appointment,” the US embassy said. “This is part of our concentrated outreach to senior political and business leaders which began in November to highlight the US-India relationship.”
The meeting is expected to provide a boost to Mr Modi, prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata party. The BJP is the favourite to emerge as the strongest party in parliament after the election, likely to be held in April or May, and a BJP-led coalition could oust the governing Congress party, in power since 2004.
Jen Psaki, a US state department spokeswoman, denied on Tuesday that the US decision had been influenced by Mr Modi’s potential election as prime minister. “We don’t take positions in elections,” she said. “So no, it wouldn’t be a reflection of that.”
Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi said: “He’s a major political figure . . . They [the US] have also realised that Indo-US relations are at a pretty low point and the last thing you want is a potential prime minister nursing a deep-seated grudge against the US. I don’t think they had a choice really.”
The US and India share a suspicion of China’s territorial ambitions in Asia and see each other as allies, but the two big democracies are embroiled in various bilateral disputes over trade and the status of diplomats.
Washington’s willingness to give Mr Modi a visa to travel to the US also remains in doubt.
He was shunned for years by western governments in the aftermath of Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 in which hundreds of people, mostly Muslims, were killed. He had taken over as chief minister shortly before the trouble flared and was accused of complicity at worst and negligence at best in the anti-Muslim violence.
He himself has not been charged or convicted and has denied involvement. In December, he said for the first time that he was “shaken to the core” by the violence, insisting in a blog that his administration had “responded to the violence more swiftly and decisively than ever done before in any previous riots in the country”.
However, Maya Kodnani, one of his political associates and senior officials, was convicted of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy along with 31 others in August 2012, and sentenced to 28 years in jail.
Mr Modi has been denied entry to the US since 2005 under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which bars foreign officials responsible for serious violations of religious freedom.
In October 2012, the US government hinted at a softening of its stand, saying Mr Modi could apply for a visa, but it did not officially end the boycott or say if the visa would be granted. Ms Psaki said “there has been no change in our longstanding visa policy” and added that the US did not speculate about the outcome of individual applications.
With India’s election campaign gathering steam, leaders of the left-leaning and secular Congress government have portrayed Mr Modi as a dangerous Hindu fundamentalist with blood on his hands.
Mr Modi, for his part, has attacked Congress under its leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi for corruption and incompetence.
He has endeared himself to Indian and foreign business leaders by focusing largely on the need to create jobs, build infrastructure and restore economic growth, which has halved to less than 5 per cent in the past three years.
Although foreign affairs only rarely affect the popular vote in India, the US decision to rehabilitate Mr Modi will boost his reputation as a potential national leader who can restore India’s tattered reputation as a regional power.
“Foreign policy counts if it can be related to a broad national self-esteem kind of argument,” said Mr Mehta. “Modi has been playing on this theme that India has a weak foreign policy.”
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