U.S. eager to forget about new India premier's 2005 visa denial

White House eager for relationship with Indian leader Narendra Modi to start on a good note

When President Obama hosts new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for dinner at the White House next week, the leaders will have a long list of issues to discuss: trade disagreements, China's rise, nuclear policy and counter-terrorism, among others.

One awkward topic neither is expected to raise is that until recently, Modi was barred from setting foot in the United States.

In 2005, Modi, an ardent Hindu nationalist and rising political star, was denied a U.S. visa over accusations that he failed to stop religious pogroms in which hundreds were killed, mostly Muslims, in the Indian state where he was serving as chief executive. That decision to bar him now seems like ancient history in both countries.

Putting the charges of sectarianism behind him, Modi led his conservative party to a resounding victory in spring national elections. One of the first world leaders to congratulate him was Obama, who quickly extended an invitation to Washington.

Buffeted by crises elsewhere in the world, the White House is eager for its relationship with Modi to start on a good note. The Obama administration has sidestepped the visa controversy in the hope of revitalizing the U.S.-Indian relationship, which has been marred by a series of trade and diplomatic quarrels.

Three U.S. Cabinet secretaries traveled to India in recent months to set the stage for Modi's visit, which includes a speech at New York's Madison Square Garden organized by an Indian expatriate group.

"The current administration seems to have taken the view that the visa ban was imposed by the Bush administration, and they have nothing to do with it," said Neelam Deo, a former Indian diplomat and co-founder of Gateway House, a think tank in Mumbai. "On the Indian side, Modi personally has sort of set it aside."

The conditions in Washington were far different a decade ago when Modi, then the top elected official in the western state of Gujarat, was due to travel to Florida to address a gathering of Indian American hotel owners. The deadly riots in Gujarat had occurred in 2002, shortly after Modi was elected, and many critics accused him of not doing enough to quell the violence.

A group called the Coalition Against Genocide, made up of South Asians in the United States, petitioned the hotel owners association to cancel the invitation, winning the support of evangelical Christians and members of Congress. They cited a never-before-used 1998 law called the International Religious Freedom Act, which aimed to bar foreign officials responsible for "severe violations of religious freedom."

The lobbying campaign worked: The State Department denied Modi's visa, declaring that "he was responsible for the performance of state institutions" during the riots. Modi sharply criticized the rejection, saying at one point, "Will India also consider what America has done in Iraq when it processes visa applications of Americans coming to India?"

Since then, a series of judicial inquiries in India has cleared Modi of responsibility in the Gujarat bloodletting. Although he has expressed remorse over the violence, he rarely discusses it. He has recast himself as an administrative whiz, having presided over strong economic growth in Gujarat and attracted investment by General Motors and Ford.

Both the United States and India hope that with Modi's mandate for economic reform, past hurdles can be overcome. Personal contacts with Modi are key because "the vast majority of U.S. officials know almost nothing about the prime minister," said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

The Obama administration, like the Bush and Clinton administrations before it, has been eager to strengthen ties that could boost both countries' economies and improve America's strategic position in Asia. But a ballyhooed nuclear technology deal with New Delhi never delivered the big contracts U.S. firms hoped for, while trade and defense ties were held back by domestic political realities in both countries.

Matters devolved further last year after authorities in New York arrested and strip-searched an Indian diplomat suspected of mistreating her housekeeper. The detention stirred outrage in India.

"The relationship had languished due to a lack of any propulsion," said K. Shankar Bajpai, a former Indian ambassador to Washington. "The image of a decisive leader in India has attracted worldwide attention, that maybe India is coming back to work. So there are hopes of reviving the economic ties and building up a few new ones."

In upcoming meetings, officials are expected to announce steps to broaden trade relations and expand defense and energy connections. The White House also wants to talk to Modi about working together in Afghanistan and against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.

Analysts say the U.S. and India also share a desire to offset the growing power of China, although leaders won't say that publicly so as to maintain healthy relations and economic ties with Beijing. As Indian and Chinese troops faced off recently across their border, Modi has made clear his worries about China's "18th century expansionist mind-set."

Even some who helped lead the campaign to deny Modi an American visa did not challenge his invitation this time.

"It is our view that the stigma and accusations still lie around his neck," said Shaik Ubaid, a Long Island, N.Y.-physician and co-founder of the Coalition Against Genocide. "At the same time, many members of the coalition said that if he wants to the visit the U.S. as the head of a government, we should not oppose him."

Bengali reported from Mumbai and Richter from Washington.

Twitter:  @SBengali and  @richtpau

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