The US has signalled it will end its nine-year boycott of BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi. US ambassador Nancy Powell last week asked and received permission from South Block to meet the Gujarat chief minister, say Indian and American sources.
The US embassy spokesman confirmed the appointment, saying it was “part of our concentrated outreach to senior political and economic leaders which began in November to highlight the US-India relationship”.
The tentative dates for the meeting, likely to be held in the state capital Gandhinagar, are February 14 or 15.
There is unlikely to be any direct conversation about the visa, diplomatic sources say. Bilateral relations would be taken up during the meeting, the US embassy said.
The US cannot offer a visa during the election campaign for fear of being accused of trying to influence Indian domestic politics. But the signal being sent is unmistakable: the US is open to doing business with Modi.
“The US embassy has been sounding us out for the past two weeks if Modi would be amenable to such a meeting,” a senior BJP leader said. It is standard for foreign envoys who wish to meet regional leaders to ask for permission from the Indian foreign ministry, housed in South Block.
After reports implicated Modi in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, Washington imposed a visa ban on the chief minister citing the US immigration and nationality act that makes any foreign government official who was responsible for or “directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for the visa.
In 2005, Modi was denied the diplomatic visa normally granted to senior political leaders and the B-1/B-2 visa issued to him earlier was revoked.
At the time Washington was part of a larger boycott of Modi by most Western governments. The UK was the first to reverse the policy, followed by the European Union.
Thanks to lobbying by US and Indian rights and religious groups and a sympathetic Democratic administration, Washington stuck to a position that Modi was “welcome to apply for a visa and await a review like any other applicant”. In other words, it refused to guarantee that Modi would not be humiliated by a visa rejection.
The South Asia desk of the state department in mid-2013 pushed for reversal of policy but the Obama administration let the opportunity pass.
In November, said a US diplomatic source, Washington drew up plans for the US ambassador to meet Modi to signal that it was open for communications. However, the souring of ties following the arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade killed the initiative. With Khobragade back in India, the US ambassador felt free to act.