Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s crushing victory in India’s elections presents an awkward task for Western powers who shunned the Hindu nationalist leader for years, but see New Delhi as a crucial partner.
US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders invited the incoming Indian prime minister to visit in congratulatory telephone calls and stressed common interests with the world’s largest democracy after Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won India’s widest victory in three decades.
The same governments until recently treated Modi as a pariah due to accusations that he turned a blind eye or worse to deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2002. The US in 2005 refused him a visa on human rights grounds.
US officials “are painfully aware that they are at a real disadvantage by not having a relationship with Modi or really knowing him,” said Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“They are going to try to remedy that as quickly as possible,” he added.
As signs grew that Modi was cruising to victory, the US has rushed to undo the bad blood. US Ambassador to India Nancy Powell met with him in February and the US Department of State has made it clear that Modi will have no visa problem as prime minister.
Other Western nations moved more swiftly to court Modi, with the British and French ambassadors visiting him well before the elections.
A confidential US diplomatic cable written during the 2005 visa row, released by the Web site WikiLeaks, warned that a BJP with Modi in charge would be “more anti-American and less cooperative with the US,” although it also predicted that Modi would bring electoral disaster.
However, the warming of the once-distant US-India relationship largely took place when the BJP was last in power, during the 1998-2004 rule of then-Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Modi, who has little foreign policy experience, recently said that international relations should be based on interests rather than individuals — a comment that, US diplomats hope, indicates he will not hold a grudge.
His top campaign promise has been on the economy and he courted Western investors in Gujarat even while governments shunned him.
Modi’s sweeping majority would allow the government to push through business-friendly changes, although the BJP has criticized the outgoing government’s key reform of opening India to foreign retailers such as Walmart.
Alyssa Ayres, a former US Department of State official focused on South Asia, said Modi appeared to be a “pragmatist” with his eyes on economic development.
However, Ayres, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, expected that the US would still find quiet ways to pay attention to religious freedom.
“There is going to be, for some time, a lot of people focused on how he is going to govern — will it be Hindu-first, or will he govern as someone who is a champion of India’s great diversity and the magic that is everything about India?” she said.
With the West boycotting him, Modi paid repeated visits to East Asia and became fixated on bringing India’s development to the level of neighboring giant China.
Diplomats predict Modi may pay an early visit to Japan, where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — a fellow nationalist who won his country’s strongest political mandate in years through economic promises — could be a kindred spirit.