Obama's new India problem: What to do with Narendra Modi? (+video)

Narendra Modi will be the next prime minister of India, but until Friday, he was banned from traveling to the US because of allegations related to a 2002 riot. It's a new complication for already-rocky US-India relations. 

By , Staff writer

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    Former US Ambassador to India Nancy Powell receives flowers presented to her by Narendra Modiin Gandhinagar, India, earlier this year. Mr. Modi is almost certain to become India's next prime minister.
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On Friday, President Obama did what just about everyone knew he must and invited Narendra Modi, India's new prime-minister-in-waiting, to the United States.

It was anything but a routine invitation.

Mr. Modi remains the only person ever to be banned from traveling to the United States under the International Religious Freedom Act. Until Friday, the Obama administration had not officially clarified whether the future leader of the world's largest democracy would even be allowed to come to Washington.

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In truth, there was little suspense. India is important to US Asia policy, and recent relations have been so rocky that it would have been unthinkable for Mr. Obama to respond to the success of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with anything other than overt enthusiasm.

But the fact that the decision came only now – only after it was abundantly clear that the BJP had won India's recent elections in a landslide of historic proportions – hints at a reluctance.

Unfairly or not, Modi is in many ways the face of the 2002 Gujarat riots, which saw some of the worst religious violence in India's recent history. For an American president who has taken pains to reach out to the Muslim world – not to mention a president who is himself a minority – that represents an unneeded complication in America's already-strained friendship with India.

The question for the White House is no longer whether to embrace Modi, but how. And after India was enraged last December by US treatment of an Indian diplomat in New York charged with visa fraud, Obama must step carefully. 

Modi's travel ban dates to 2005. That was when the State Department decided that Modi had not done enough to stop the Gujarat riots. He was chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat at the time, and critics charged that he allowed Hindus to revenge themselves on Muslims after a train of Hindu pilgrims had caught fire. (Hindu rioters believed Muslims had set fire to the train.) More than 1,000 people died in the riots, about 800 of them Muslim.

Modi has long said he did what he could, noting in an interview with the Brookings Institution that he had only been elected the year before and so was still new to his post. But the BJP's staunch brand of Hindu nationalism was often seen as anti-Muslim, and Modi's actions during the riots played to critics' worst fears.

For its part, the Obama administration chose not to lift the travel ban even as other Western countries slowly reengaged Modi. The British reopened ties in 2012, for instance. But there have been signs of a thaw. Former US Ambassador to India Nancy Powell visited Modi in Gujarat in February.

Now, it appears, the Indian people have forced the US to go a step further.

Perhaps fittingly, the US will judge Modi in that same way that his voters will. One of the reasons that the BJP won so handily (282 of 543 seats in an election where 36 parties won at least one seat) is because it is seen as having put its sectarian ways behind it. 

Reuters reports that Modi's BJP did well not only in predominantly Hindu voting districts, but also in areas with a significant Muslim population. A BJP candidate had won or was leading the still-unfinished counting in 47 of 102 districts where Muslims make up at least 20 percent of the population. In the last election, the BJP won only 24 of those seats.

The BJP even won two seats in districts that are majority Muslim. In total, Muslims make up about 15 percent of the Indian population.

The ebbing of sectarian concerns allowed the BJP's strengths – its economic credentials and its record against corruption – to come to the fore. Modi's state is often called the "Gujarat Miracle" because of its success in cutting chronic bureaucratic red tape and ensuring 24/7 electricity – a rarity in India.

"This is not a vote on [religious] lines," Syed Mohammed Khalid, a Muslim leader in West Bengal, told Reuters. "This is a vote for development and for jobs. We respect the people's verdict, and we think Modi will have to be a responsible leader."

Others agree that Modi and the BJP have shifted their tone and deserve a chance to show they have changed. Indeed, Modi made headlines last year when he told a crowd in New Delhi: "My identity is of a Hindutvawadi [Hindu crusader], but I say build toilets before you build temples," speaking of the urgent need to build basic infrastructure across India. 

Among Modi's new supporters is a former Supreme Court judge who once led a citizens' investigation into the 2002 riots and wrote that the slaughter was "organised crime perpetrated by the chief minister and his government."

"I am appealing to Modi, please be non-communal. If you want to be a great PM, you have to be secular," V.R. Krishna Iyer told NDTV.com. "If Modi stood for something at one point, and has changed it publicly, then I support him," adding that "Modi has to declare it publicly."

Those words were not in the White House's official release, but it seems likely they were in Obama's thoughts.

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