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The U.S. lags in developing ties with India's new leader. It's time to catch up.
Like a suitor who realizes that he may have waited too long to pop the question, the Obama administration is wooing new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with sudden ardor. President Obama was quick to congratulate Mr. Modi when his Bharatiya Janata Party won an impressive victory in India’s elections last month. Secretary of State John Kerry, viewed by many Indians as insufficiently attentive to New Delhi, has welcomed the new government with tweets, statements and phone calls. For his part, Mr. Modi has accepted Mr. Obama’s invitation to visit Washington later this year, likely in September.
At stake is a budding U.S.-India relationship cultivated by three successive U.S. presidents who have (to varying degrees) seen the South Asian nation as a democratic hedge against China, a bulwark against radical Islam, and one of Asia’s principal engines of economic growth. It doesn’t hurt that Mr. Modi’s priorities in office—reviving the economy, modernizing the military, restoring India’s reputation as a rising power—dovetail neatly with the U.S. preference for a democratic, prosperous and pluralistic Asia dominated by no single country.
Yet the U.S. is playing catch-up in cultivating Mr. Modi. In 2005, Washington effectively spearheaded a Western boycott of Mr. Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, by denying him a U.S. visa over allegations of “severe violations of religious freedom” linked to Hindu-Muslim riots in the state three years earlier that claimed some 1,000 lives, about three-fourths of them Muslim. In 2012, a four-year investigation by India’s Supreme Court failed to turn up evidence that Mr. Modi was complicit in the violence. But the U.S. waited until four months ago to lift its embargo on high-level contact with Mr. Modi with a visit by then-Ambassador to India Nancy Powell.
The British sent their top official in New Delhi to call on Mr. Modi 16 months before the U.S. did, when it became apparent that the Gujarat leader was on the verge of winning his third consecutive election as chief minister of the prosperous state. Other Europeans, led by Germany, followed suit soon after. As for the Chinese and Japanese, whose economic success Mr. Modi makes no secret of admiring, they never allowed the controversy over the Gujarat riots to get in the way of cultivating India’s most business-friendly politician. Mr. Modi has reportedly visited China five times, and Japan four times.
Today the Obama administration seems to pretend that there was never any problem, while Mr. Modi has taken the high road when asked if his visa problems would harm Indian ties with the U.S. Before his election in May, Mr. Modi told the Times of India that “relations between the two countries cannot be determined or even remotely influenced by incidents related to individuals.”
But in private, Modi advisors tend not to be nearly as charitable. Some view America’s cold shoulder as a public humiliation of their leader that was eagerly grasped by his political opponents in the Congress Party, who wielded it as evidence that Mr. Modi was unfit to lead India.
To get the U.S.-India relationship to thrive doesn’t require dwelling on this awkward backstory, but it does require acknowledging it. The simplest way is to ensure that Mr. Modi gets a welcome in Washington that not even his fiercest supporters can characterize as cold.
In 2009, Mr. Obama honored India’s then-prime minister, Manmohan Singh, with his presidency’s first state dinner. Mr. Singh also addressed a joint session of Congress, as did his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004). A similar welcome for Mr. Modi would go a long way toward ensuring that ties between New Delhi and Washington regain the natural warmth they enjoyed under Mr. Vajpayee, India’s last BJP prime minister. Traditionally, BJP supporters don’t carry the baggage of anti-Americanism that marked India’s foreign policy during the Cold War, and that the left-of-center Congress Party has never fully shed. The people a genuine rapprochement with Mr. Modi would most upset in India—fundamentalist Islamic groups and assorted leftists—are those who anyway never miss an opportunity to spot an American conspiracy or denounce Uncle Sam’s “neo-imperialism.”
Enough sensible people in Washington and New Delhi know that the U.S.-India relationship matters more than any messy backstory concerning one man. But when that man is the most powerful person in India, with a legion of followers otherwise hardly predisposed toward America-bashing, then it makes sense for Washington to ensure that its outreach to Mr. Modi is given as much importance as the substance of bilateral relations. It’s time to roll out the red carpet for Prime Minister Modi.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. He tweets @dhume
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