White House

Once shunned by U.S., Indian premier arrives in Washington as rock star

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India waves as he is introduced before giving a speech during a reception by the Indian community in honor of his visit to the United States at Madison Square Garden, Sept. 28, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India waves as he is introduced before giving a speech during a reception by the Indian community in honor of his visit to the United States at Madison Square Garden, Sept. 28, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow) AP

Nearly a decade ago, Narendra Modi was banned from entering the United States after he was blamed for failing to stop a series of deadly riots against a minority group in the Indian state of Gujarat.

On Monday, Modi, now the extremely popular prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, arrived in Washington as the guest of the president of the United States.

Modi brings with him to the U.S. a rock star following by Indians around the globe.

Nearly 20,000 people, mostly Indian Americans, turned out to see him at a campaign-like rally Sunday in New York, holding “America loves Modi” signs, painting his likeness on their chests and treating him like a bona fide celebrity instead of a 64-year-old politician.

Milan Vaishnav, an associate in the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it’s hard to imagine somebody else – besides perhaps the pope or the late South African leader Nelson Mandela – receiving a welcome like that.

“This, in many ways, is a victory lap for Modi,” Vaishnav said. “Just a few months ago this was a man who couldn’t under U.S. law enter American soil, and he’s gone in just a matter of a few months from persona non grata to person of honor to be received warmly in the Oval Office.”

Modi’s stop in New York kicked off a five-day visit to the U.S. with a jam-packed schedule, including his maiden speech to the United Nations General Assembly, meetings with chief executives from major companies such as Boeing and Google, and gatherings with lawmakers.

On Monday, he attended a private dinner with President Barack Obama in the White House’s Blue Room, before retiring to Blair House, the presidential guest house located across the street. Modi, a devout Hindu, is in the midst of the annual nine-day religious fast Navratri. Although certain food is allowed certain times of the day, Modi has said that he follows the strictest form of abstinence, drinking only water. White House officials said they planned to be respectful of his observances.

On Tuesday, after an official arrival ceremony and meeting with Obama in the Oval Office, he will have lunch with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry. Later, he will head to Capitol Hill to visit Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other House of Representatives leaders.

Modi has made his agenda clear: He’s looking to convince possible American investors that India is open for business, a goal he dubbed “Made in India” and outlined in an op-ed last week in The Wall Street Journal.

But Modi remains a controversial figure at home and abroad.

He continues to be criticized for failing to prevent the 2002 Gujarat riots – in which 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set on fire – when he was the state’s chief minister. It was that episode that led U.S. officials in 2005 to ban him from the country under an obscure law barring entry to foreigners who have committed severe violations of religious freedom.

Just before his arrival Friday in New York, a human rights group, the American Justice Center, filed a lawsuit in federal court in New York over the riots. Modi was issued a summons.

“I don’t anticipate that it’s going to have any impact on his very important visit here to the U.S. and to the White House,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, noting that sitting heads of government enjoy immunity from lawsuits in American courts while in the United States.

Modi, a former tea salesman, has long been involved in politics. A member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, he served as chief minister of Gujarat longer than anyone else and was elected prime minister by overwhelming numbers in May, putting India under single party rule after 25 years.

Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies South Asia issues, said Modi’s rise to power in some ways mirrors that of the U.S. president.

“This is India’s Obama story,” he said. “He started out from a poor family. This is story of an outsider breaking in.”

Already, experts say, the hands-on manager has tried to bring poor Indians into the banking system, revamp India’s judicial system and rid the federal government of corruption.

“He is not like any other individual who had occupied the prime minister office in India,” said A.D. Amar, acting chair and professor of management at Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business. “He did in months what would have taken years for many other administrators. Modi is unconventional and makes bold moves. He is reinventing India.”

Indian Americans, who number 3 million and are among the best educated and best paid migrant groups in the United States, are treating him like few politicians before him.

“You have given me a lot of love,” Modi told the thousands at the Madison Square Garden event. “This kind of love has never been given to any Indian leader, ever. I’m very grateful to you. And I will repay that loan by forming the India of your dreams.”

Unlike some visits by heads of governments, there will be no events with spouses. Modi, who had long been famous for being a bachelor without a family, admitted in April when he filed papers to run for office that he had been married for nearly five decades.

Modi and retired school teacher Jashodaben Chimanlal Modi were together for three years before he left for the Himalayas and never came back, according to reports in India media. She said her husband kept her secret because it was part of his “destiny.”

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