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India's Next Leader Might Be a Man Banned by the U.S.

Last week, Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram spent four days in Washington, hustling for business—his second visit in less than six months. He delivered a keynote address at a U.S.-India Business Council summit. He met with his American counterpart Jack Lew, as well as Max Baucus (chairman of the Senate Finance Committee) and Mark Warner (co-chair of the Senate India Caucus). Then he schmoozed with various American investors.

Chidambaram's charge, in case it's not apparent, is to bring home the bacon. India is seeking foreign direct investment of at least $1 billion, to help pay for infrastructure and development projects outlined in the country’s 12th Five Year Plan (the deadline to complete the projects is March 2017).

It is a crucial time for India in general—and its relationship with the U.S. in particular. With next year's nationwide elections looming, its ruling Indian National Congress (INC) party has been hit by a string of corruption scandals. Meanwhile, the government is being careful not to alienate the U.S., given the economic stakes. That may explain the country's recent refusal to grant asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden and its playing down of revelations that the U.S. snooped on 38 country missions in the U.S., including India's.

But this relationship would surely change next year if the embattled INC is toppled by the main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), potentially installing as prime minister a controversial politician who is persona non grata in America: Narendra Modi, chief minister of India's western state of Gujarat since 2001, who was promoted last month to head their Campaign Committee for next year's elections. That alone makes him a strong prime ministerial candidate—even if senior BJP leaders resent the idea—and he has made his aspirations clear.

If indeed Modi ran, and won, don't expect an invite from the White House anytime soon. In March 2005, the U.S. denied him a diplomatic visa and even revoked his tourist/business visa (under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998) because of his role—or rather, his indifference to—the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat.

The chain of events began when a single car in a train bound for Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, caught fire; 59 people died, all Hindu pilgrims returning from building a temple where a mosque once stood (it was razed by Hindus in 1992). Many Hindus believed—and a court verdict later confirmed—that the fire was a pre-planned attack by Muslims. The day after the fire, riots broke out in Gujarat, and over the next three months some 1,100 people, mostly Muslims (official records say 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus) were killed, often gruesomely, while the police did little to stop it. Zakia Jafri, wife of a Muslim member of Parliament who was killed in the riots, and many others allege that Modi had ordered police not to interfere. The Supreme Court of India, which appointed a Special Investigation Team to investigate the riots, last year cleared Modi of responsibility for the massacre.

David C. Mulford, then the U.S. ambassador to India, said in a statement that the decision to ban Modi was “based on the fact that, as head of the State government in Gujarat between February 2002 and May 2002, he was responsible for the performance of state institutions at that time.” The statement continued, “The State Department's detailed views on this matter are included in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and the International Religious Freedom Report. Both reports document the violence in Gujarat from February 2002 to May 2002 and cite the Indian National Human Rights Commission report, which states there was 'a comprehensive failure on the part of the state government to control the persistent violation of rights of life, liberty, equality, and dignity of the people of the state.'”

Since then, Modi has tried to put the 2002 riots behind him—he refused to talk about the 2002 riots until a recent interview with Reuters—and rebuild his image, especially abroad, as a pro-business, pro-development politician. At various conclaves, all he talks about is Gujarat’s “growth story.”

In August 2007, Modi hired a Washington-based lobbying firm, APCO Worldwide, to help him sell the state’s flagship program—the Vibrant Gujarat Summit, a biennial event bringing together investors, businessmen, and policymakers—and to burnish the state's image. (APCO's client list includes former and current dictators. And its staff includes Tim Roemer, former U.S. ambassador to India from 2009-2011, a senior director at the firm who has editorialized in favor of more investment in India.) That contract recently came to an end in March, according to an APCO spokesman.

Despite these efforts, Modi has struggled to make inroads in the U.S. He was supposed to deliver the keynote address, by videoconference, at Wharton’s India Economic Forum in March, but his address was canceled after students protested. But on March 29, a U.S. delegation featuring Republican representatives Aaron Schock, Cynthia Lummis, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers—the highest U.S. delegation to meet Modi since the riots—visited him in Gujarat during a 10-day tour of India, and even invited him to U.S. Lummis later addressed Modi’s visa ban in a U.S. House subcommittee hearing last month, raising questions about Modi's responsibility for the 2002 riot deaths and saying, "Here is someone whose province is growing dramatically in its hiring of people, in the welfare of their families. We have a gigantic Ford Motor Company manufacturing facility going in in Gujarat."

But it seems more U.S. politicians oppose Modi than support him. Last November, a group of 25 U.S. lawmakers—Republicans and Democrats alike—urged then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to continue to deny Modi a visa. The letter said, “As Mr. Modi continues to pursue a potential run for higher office, we believe a change in policy to his request for a visa will only embolden Modi and his government's efforts to obstruct further investigations and the tandem prosecution that have still to be finished to bring the perpetrators to justice…. It is disturbing that certain parties in India are considering elevating Modi, despite his tie to these attacks. Allowing him to enter the United States will only serve to abdicate his responsibility for the 2002 human rights abuses.” The State Department's policy since then has not changed; the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012 states, "At the end of the year, the complaint filed by Zakia Jafri in 2006 that blamed Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and 60 others for complicity in the 2002 communal violence, was still being heard in court. Human rights groups continue to allege that investigative bodies showed bias in favor of Modi in their reports."

So while the European Union has softened its stand on Modi after a 10-year boycott, the U.S. appears to be standing firm. But that may have to change as Modi inches closer to the country's top job—it's hard to imagine the U.S. denying a visa to an Indian prime minister—and perhaps as early as Monday, when Vice President Joe Biden visits the country to improve its business relations with the U.S.

Correction: An earler version of this article stated that a government report concluded that the 2002 train fire was an accident, but failed to mention that 31 Muslims were later convicted of setting the fire.