Working under the radar with Indian Americans, the Obama administration had been preparing to deal with Narendra Modi for far longer than it ever acknowledged publicly.
A senior state department official told an Indian American, who didn’t want to be identified, way back in February that Modi on being elected PM, won’t need a visa.
And, presciently, he will get invited to the White House.
The then chief minister of Gujarat was the BJP’s candidate for the post of Prime Minister, but he had not started leading in the polls the way he would in a few weeks.
Then one April afternoon at a Chicago restaurant, President Obama was confronted with a searching question at a meeting with Democratic Party donors.
An India American donor asked him how he intended to improve relations with India when the man who will be the next PM was “denied a visa on flimsy grounds by a low-level official in 2005”.
Modi, as Gujarat chief minister was denied an official visa in 2005, and was deprived of his tourist-business visa over the alleged failure of his government to stop the 2002 riots.
According to this donor, the President assured him “it will be taken care of”: He would the first to call Modi on his victory, congratulate him and invite him to the White House.
As it turned out, President Obama did call to congratulate Modi — though he was not the first, other world leaders beat him to it — and invited him to the White House.
The administration was ready for Modi by then, in fact.
A senior state department official told the same Indian American on May 11, a day before polls closed in India, there were instructions from both the White House and Secretary of State John Kerry to prepare for full relations with the Modi government.
What if the verdict yielded a hung Parliament? Even then.
So, what had changed?
“The official told me Modi was now a national figure and had to be treated as one.”
Results were declared five days later. The BJP won big, Modi became PM and Obama did invite him to the White House.
But the Americans didn’t get a response immediately. In fact, almost an entire week passed, and there was still no word. That Modi could decline the invitation was a real possibility. Most of DC — lobbyists, experts, officials, Capitol Hill aides and even some lawmakers — was indeed worried if Modi would ever overcome the visa slight.
Unknown to them, however, Modi was simply busy dealing with the aftermath of an outsized victory. And he also wanted to firm up his UNGA schedule before getting back.
On May 22, Modi told his aides, among them an Indian American, that he will accept Obama’s invitation. And that was conveyed to a state department official the same day.
Everything worked out fine in the end, including the visit.