How Narendra Modi came in from the cold: America eager to do business with India's new PM

For years, he was blacklisted by Washington for allegedly failing to prevent the massacre of hundreds of Muslims in 2002. Now he is being wined and dined by President Obama

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Seldom can a foreign leader’s first official visit to America have generated so much hype. Narendra Modi arrived in New York today for meetings aimed at rebooting the India-US relationship. His visit represents a remarkable transition for the Indian Prime Minister.

For many years, Mr Modi was blacklisted by Washington for his alleged role in the massacre of hundreds of Muslims in 2002; now he is being lavishly welcomed as the leader of a country that the Obama administration hopes will become a major business and strategic partner. Mr Modi, 64, will spend much of the five-day visit focusing on trade and investment. He is keen to send a message that, after several years during which the Indian government seemed to have opted for inaction, his country is once again open for business.

After a speech to the United Nations General Assembly today, where he is expected to push India’s case to become a permanent member of the Security Council, Mr Modi will have a private dinner on Monday with Barack Obama – albeit a dinner at which he will drink only lemonade because of his annual observance of a religious fast – before formal talks on Tuesday.

Yet the event that appears to have most captured the imagination, both of the Indian media and of the Indian-American population in New York, is a rally he is to hold on Sunday evening at Madison Square Garden. The 18,000-seater stadium is usually home to rock concerts and the agonies and joys of basketball, courtesy of the New York Knicks team. If the event, organised by Indian-American groups, is as packed out as it is expected to be, Mr Modi will have drawn the biggest crowd for a foreign leader to the US since Fidel Castro’s emotional trip to New York in 1959, in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution.

A policeman patrols during deadly religious riots between Hindus and Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002, when the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was its chief minister (AFP/Getty Images)

“Modi’s visit is hugely symbolic but also has economic motivations,” said Professor Katharine Adeney, a South Asia expert at the University of Nottingham. “It is symbolic because Modi was denied a US visa in 2005, but, as the leader of the world’s largest democracy and a huge potential market for America, he has now been welcomed with open arms.”

Much has been written about the potential that exists in the relationship between the US and India, the world’s two largest democracies. When Mr Obama addressed the joint houses of the Indian parliament in 2010, he predicted that ties between the two countries would represent a “defining partnership of the 21st century”. But ever since the days when Jawaharlal Nehru visited America in the 1950s and complained about its inhabitants’ poor manners and pushiness, the reality has often been of a potential that remains unfulfilled.

India has historically sought to avoid falling excessively under the influence of the US, which would like to position Delhi as an Asian counterweight to China, while the US has persistently complained that India refuses to open up its markets to American businesses. The US also says India is not prepared to get involved in contentious issues at the United Nations.

The differences in approach have meant that, over the years, the relationship has constantly run into trouble. For instance, while the two sides agreed a landmark civil nuclear agreement in 2005, India’s domestic liability laws and an apparent reluctance to change them have prevented US companies from capitalising on the deal.

And last year, a relatively modest incident involving an Indian diplomat being accused of lying on visa forms sparked an outcry in India after she was arrested and strip-searched by authorities in New York. The US claimed that the law should apply to everyone, while India said the US’s heavy-handedness was an insult to the entire nation.

A tattoo artist paints portraits of US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi onto women's backs (Getty Images)

Mr Modi was refused a visa by the US after being accused of condoning, or at least failing to stop, the killing of hundreds of Muslims in the state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister, in 2002.

But after it became clear that Mr Modi, who was cleared of the allegations by a judicial inquiry, was set to become India’s next Prime Minister, the UK, US and Europe ended the boycott. Some have said that as a result, Mr Modi, who was elected in a landslide victory in May, will relish all the more the red-carpet treatment he is to receive.

Observers say that both sides have worked hard to ensure the issue will not impede talks. “Mr Modi has said the relationship between the two countries is more important than any individuals,” said Neelam Deo, a former Indian diplomat who is now director of the Indian Council on Global Relations. “Clearly the US has gone to some lengths to put it behind them by sending senior officials here ahead of this visit.”

But Mr Modi will not be permitted to forget the matter entirely. Today, it emerged that a US court has ordered the Indian leader to answer allegations that he failed to stop the killings.

The American Justice Centre, a human rights group representing two survivors of the massacres in 2002, is seeking compensatory and punitive damages from Mr Modi under the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act. Mr Modi reportedly has 21 days to respond to the court.

“There is evidence to support the conclusion that Mr Modi committed both acts of intentional and malicious direction to authorities in India to kill and maim innocent persons of the Muslim faith,” the petition said, according to the Reuters news agency. There has been no word yet about the lawsuit from either Mr Modi or the Indian government.