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Global Economics

India's Modi Kicking Up U.S. Controversy—Again

Human rights groups and U.S. lawmakers are determined to deny a visa to Gujarat's nationalist Chief Minister, but the economic fallout should be minimal

Narendra Modi, the controversial Indian politician, is creating headlines again--without doing much at all. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, an industrial state in northwestern India, Modi is admired for his economic savvy but criticized for his hard-line, nationalist politics. The Hindu leader, blamed by critics for allowing anti-Muslim violence in 2002 that left between 1,100 and 2,000 people dead and more than 150,000 displaced, won reelection last December and is a leading figure in the opposition to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress Party-led coalition government.

So when a group of business-minded Gujaratis in the U.S. invited him and other prominent Indians to a conference in New Jersey scheduled to begin on Aug. 29--as they had in 2005--passions were stirred. A collection of Indian and American nongovernmental organizations called the Coalition Against Genocide has lobbied Washington to again deny Modi a travel visa should he seek it, and 27 U.S. lawmakers have signed on to back the effort. "A visit to the U.S. by Chief Minister Modi will provide tacit approval of his reprehensible statements, policies, and actions," wrote Representative Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "I respectfully request your leadership in publicly condemning his actions and policies by once again denying Chief Minister Narendra Modi the right to enter this country." Modi's personal spokesman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

That upsets those close to Modi. "Mr Modi has not accepted any invitation to speak anywhere, and all of this is a way for NGO's all over the world to become famous by insulting him," says IK Jadeja, a spokesman for the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, the Chief Minister's political party. "Narendraji [Modi] has made only one thing clear: he will not go to any place where Gujarat is being insulted."

Modi has maintained that the 2002 riots were spontaneous and that the police did everything they could to stop attacks on Muslims. Still, he's never apologized and said that he understood the crowd's anger, which was triggered when 59 Hindus were burned to death when a Muslim mob set fire to a train. And human rights groups say he's obstructed investigations into the violence.

But Modi has laid low on issues of religious tensions since then, instead focusing on his political career. Gujarat's government points to Modi's December reelection as a sign that the people have issued their verdict on the Chief Minister's rule. "The victory of 2007 is a reaffirmation of the people's faith in his leadership, statesmanship, and governance, which he displayed in last six years as Chief Minister," the state claims on its Web site. "Modi's model of good governance is being applauded within the country and beyond. The way he has won the hearts of people of Gujarat and his popularity at the national level show that 'Good governance is also good politics.'" The U.S. State Dept. said it cannot comment unless Modi formally applies for a visa, which he appears unlikely to do without the promise of approval.

A Region of Entrepreneurs

The disdain for Modi among his critics conflicts with otherwise strong ties between the U.S. and Gujarat, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. As many as one in five Indian-Americans, many of them entrepreneurs, hail from the region. And big U.S. companies like DuPont (DD), and GM (GM) have operations in the Indian state, which outpaced India as a whole (, 12/11/07) in gross domestic product growth in 2007, 13% to 9%. Still, it is unlikely any economic repercussions will be felt in either country if Modi isn't allowed to visit the U.S.

At least there weren't any to speak of last time. Modi was denied a visa in 2005 after being invited to the U.S. by a group of hoteliers, a common occupation for Gujaratis in America. The State Dept. cited a never-before-used law prohibiting the entrance of foreign officials responsible for "severe violations of religious freedom." The State Dept. based its decision on a report by the Indian National Human Rights Commission, said U.S. Ambassador to India David Mulford in 2005. That report stated 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." The ambassador added,"I would note also the great respect the U.S. has for the many successful Gujaratis who live and work in the U.S. and the thousands who are issued visas to the U.S. each month."

Many Gujaratis were nonetheless incensed. In India, protests erupted after the visa denial, resulting in the partial burning of a PepsiCo (PEP) plant in Surat and calls for the boycott of American goods. Indian-Americans also protested, and Modi addressed them from India via live videoconference at Madison Square Garden.

Human Rights Groups Lobby

But for India's main opposition party, the BJP, Modi is a star. Should the faction return to power, he could one day be Prime Minister. Then, the U.S. might not have the luxury of preventing visits to America. "In the not-so-distant future, if Modi catapults even one rung higher on the national stage in Indian politics, the U.S. will have to deal with him on a much more public stage," says Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "That will make it more difficult to take such a principled stand."

Modi isn't at that level yet. While he's BJP's only credible national-level figure, the 2002 riots make him unpalatable to many Indians, and it's unclear if he will soften his nationalist rhetoric.

The Indian Embassy in Washington, which unsuccessfully pushed for the U.S. to allow Modi's 2005 visit, is staying out of the fray this time, and declines to comment on the "private matter" between the U.S. and Modi. The group that invited Modi, the Association of Indian Americans in North America, also refuses to comment.

Still, American groups are lobbying against Modi's potential application. "The U.S. took a principled stand on this issue based on its own commitment to religious freedom," says Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch, about the politician's involvement in the 2002 violence. "We hope that the U.S. will continue to do so." Felice Gaer, who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government advisory agency, adds, "We have not seen changes that would warrant a policy reversal."

Many Gujaratis remain upset that Modi has been denied entry, but aren't otherwise worried. "Gujaratis are aggressive," explains Paru Jaykrishna, a 65-year-old chemical exporter from Mehsana, who was president of the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce until last month. "There may be a political reaction, but it's not really an economic issue."

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