West starts awkward embrace of India's triumphant leader Narendra Modi

Washington: Narendra Modi's crushing victory in India's elections presents an awkward task for Western powers who shunned the Hindu nationalist leader for years but see New Delhi as a crucial partner.

Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi. File pic

US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders invited the incoming prime minister to visit in congratulatory telephone calls and stressed common interests with the world's largest democracy after Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won India's widest victory in three decades.

The same governments until recently treated Modi as a pariah due to accusations the Gujarat state leader turned a blind eye or worse to deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2002.

The United States in 2005 refused him a visa on human rights grounds US officials "are painfully aware that they are at a real disadvantage by not having a relationship with Modi or really knowing him," said Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"They are going to try to remedy that as quickly as possible." As signs grew that Modi was cruising to victory, the United States has rushed to undo the bad blood.

The outgoing US ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, met with him in February, and the State Department has made clear he will have no visa problem as prime minister.

Other Western nations moved more swiftly to court Modi, with the British and French ambassadors visiting him well before the elections.

A confidential US diplomatic cable written during the 2005 visa row, released by the website WikiLeaks, warned that a BJP with Modi in charge would be "more anti-American and less cooperative with the US," although it also predicted that Modi would bring electoral disaster.

But the warming of the once-distant US-India relationship largely took place when the BJP was last in power during the 1998-2004 premiership of Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Modi, who has little foreign policy experience, recently stated that international relations should be based on interests rather than individuals - a comment that, US diplomats hope, indicates he will not hold a grudge.

His top campaign promise has been on the economy, and he courted Western investors in Gujarat even while governments shunned him. Modi's sweeping majority would allow the government to push through business-friendly changes, although the BJP has criticised the outgoing government's key reform of opening India to foreign retailers such as Walmart.

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