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The U.S. decision to reach out to prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi makes sense.
When U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell met Gujarat Chief Minister and opposition Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi Thursday, she ended a nine-year American boycott of the controversial politician.
Critics may argue that the U.S. has jumped the gun, effectively endorsing Mr. Modi ahead of national elections due by May and abandoning a principled stand for human rights in favor of realpolitik. They are wrong. You can fault Washington for waiting until this close to an election to reach out to Mr. Modi. But the decision itself is eminently sensible.
The long U.S. estrangement with Mr. Modi dates back 12 years. In 2002, the then-newly sworn in chief minister failed to control riots that broke out after a Muslim mob burnt alive 59 Hindu pilgrims in a train. About 1,000 people died in the violence, three-fourths of them Muslim. For many people, Mr. Modi became a symbol of criminal negligence at best and an abettor of violence at worst. He has always denied any wrongdoing.
In 2005, ahead of a planned visit by Mr. Modi to address Indian-American hotel owners in Florida, the U.S. denied him a diplomatic visa. It also revoked his tourist visa under a rarely used law designed to punish violators of religious liberty. At the time, it seemed like an easy enough decision. Mr. Modi’s party, the BJP, had been voted out of national power the previous year. The chief minister’s own favorability ratings hovered in the low single digits. For much of India’s liberal English-language press, he was effectively public enemy No. 1.
Under scrutiny, the most damning charge—that he allowed enraged Hindu mobs to retaliate against innocent Muslims after the train burning—collapsed for lack of evidence. Two years ago, an investigation ordered by the Supreme Court exonerated Mr. Modi. In December last year, another court upheld the investigation.
As India’s painfully slow investigative and legal processes churned their way toward conclusions, Mr. Modi scripted one of the most remarkable comebacks in modern Indian politics. His ticket to national political rebirth: the economy.
On Mr. Modi’s watch, Gujarat, long among India’s better-run states, has become a standout performer. The state grew at a tigerish double-digit average for a decade and established a reputation as one of the few places in India where government rolled out the red carpet for investors rather than the usual red tape.
Mr. Modi’s flagship investment summit, the biannual Vibrant Gujarat, attracts scores of global and Indian businesses and has spawned a clutch of imitators. On the national stage, the three-time chief minister is the only prominent politician to preach a message of international competitiveness, small government, moderate taxation and world-class infrastructure. U.S. investors in Gujarat include General Motors, Ford and the pharmaceuticals firm Abbott Laboratories.
Some of America’s closest allies, such as Britain, Germany and Australia, have already made up with Mr. Modi. And the international business community is rooting for the chief minister—widely regarded as an efficient administrator friendly to private enterprise—to restore India’s stuttering economy to the high-growth path many took for granted just a few years ago. Against this backdrop, the question isn’t why Washington decided to make up with Mr. Modi, but why it took so long.
More recently, Mr. Modi has emerged as the front-runner to succeed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In December, Mr. Modi helped the BJP crush the ruling Congress Party in four states in the populous Hindi heartland and form the government in three of them. A poll last month by Delhi’s Center for the Study of Developing Societies shows 34% of Indians would like to see Mr. Modi as prime minister, more than twice as many as those who prefer his closest rival, Congress Party scion Rahul Gandhi.
To be sure, polling in India remains as much crapshoot as science and a BJP victory is far from certain. But even if Mr. Modi ends up as leader of the opposition, the U.S. government will need to find a way to work with him. It also ought to build bridges with his legion of passionate supporters, many of whom are educated young professionals unburdened by traditional Indian left-wing anti-Americanism.
It’s too early to say whether the U.S. and Mr. Modi will overcome their awkward start. And the notion that Washington would back a candidate with whom its future ties remain uncertain is sheer fantasy. There were simply no excuses left for the U.S. to shun him.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com.
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