With a simple phone call on Friday afternoon, President Obama invited the next prime minister of India to the United States and effectively ended an almost decade-long visa ban on the controversial Indian politician Narendra Modi. The Indian leader, whose Bharatiya Janata Party just swept the polls in India's general election, had been prevented from traveling to the United States due to his involvement in deadly communal riots in 2002. But given the importance of the U.S.-India partnership, and Modi's tremendous popularity at home, some experts say Obama and the State Department waited too long to forge meaningful ties with Modi risking lasting damage to the strategically vital relationship between the two powers.
"The Obama administration's failure to publicly repudiate the visa ban [earlier] can only be seen as shortsighted at best, or an example of stupefying State Department inertia at worst," said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, a group that advocates on behalf of Hindu-Americans.
"They should have been meeting with him immediately when it was clear he was going to lead the BJP, which was last fall," added Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
For years, supporters of Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, had been asking the Obama administration to clarify his travel status as the Indian leader's political career advanced. Washington denied him a diplomatic visa in 2005 and revoked his existing business visa due to his role in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat in which some 1,000 people -- mostly Muslims -- were killed. Modi stood accused of stoking religious violence and failing to protect Gujarat's Muslim minority. A subsequent resolution passed by Congress condemned him for promoting Nazi ideology and "racial hatred." In 2005, Foggy Bottom revoked his visa under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which makes foreign officials who are responsible for "serious" violations of religious freedom ineligible for travel to America.
In recent months, the standing policy of the U.S. government was that Modi could apply for a visa and await the results. "Our long-standing policy with regard to the chief minister is that he is welcome to apply for a visa and await a review like any other applicant," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told Foreign Policy in December. "That review will be grounded in U.S. law."
But Modi, a proud politician in the middle of an election, had little reason to apply for a visa and risk the negative consequences of being rejected. His supporters, meanwhile, grimaced at Washington's refusal to clarify his travel status as European nations actively courted him. "The British had been meeting with Modi since 2012," noted Curtis. "The White House was behind the curve and now the onus is on them to give a very clear signal that they're ready to do business with Modi."
Of course, not everyone thinks Modi deserves a hero's welcome. Shaik Ubaid, spokesman for the Coalition Against Genocide, a group that raises awareness about the 2002 riots in Gujarat, says the group will continue to press the issue of Modi's past crimes. "We continue to believe Modi is responsible, not only for the brutal pogroms of 2002 that claimed over 2,000 lives, but also for the denial of justice to the victims, harassment of human rights activists and fake police encounter killings pursued in Gujarat as a matter of state policy," he said. "Modi's ascent to the highest executive office in India is rightly a matter of concern for all who value human rights and religious freedom."
Others believe it was time for the U.S. to embrace Modi, the leader of the world's largest democracy, and doubt that the visa ban will seriously hinder relations between the two countries over the long haul. "Modi will want to slow walk relations with the government initially," said Richard Rossow, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But I don't think he's going to hold it over our heads too long -- particularly because business and Capitol Hill leaders have maintained strong relations with minister Modi over the years."
When asked how the U.S. would engage with Modi going forward, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington would prioritize a government-to-government relationship that "mirrors the affection between our people."
"With the new government, we intend to foster our strategic partnership with India and offer enhanced collaboration on the economy, defense, homeland security and counterterrorism, as well as the health sector," said Psaki.