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Modi sets conditions, US swallows
Meet on third attempt

New Delhi, Feb. 11: The US made Narendra Modi wait for more than eight years. But in the end, it was the Gujarat chief minister who forced Washington to plead — not once, not twice, but thrice in the past three months before agreeing to terminate a diplomatic spat that began when the US denied Modi a visa in 2005.

US ambassador to India Nancy Powell will meet Modi on Thursday in Gandhinagar, ending America’s boycott of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate ahead of the Lok Sabha elections where he is widely viewed as a front-runner.

But it is the US embassy here that was eventually made to sweat for the meeting by Modi after a series of tense attempts at ice-breaking that failed, Indian and American officials aware of the details of the outreach have confirmed to The Telegraph.

Modi eventually agreed only to a meet strictly on his terms, the officials said. The location had to be Gandhinagar; the choice of subjects had to be in tune with his national role; and the US had to discomfit his rivals, the Congress-led central government, by obtaining its approval for the meeting even though Modi and Powell could have circumvented the foreign ministry nod.

The US, left alone in its boycott of Modi for the 2002 Gujarat riots after the European Union and Britain made up with him, accepted the conditions.

“He got what he wanted, and he got it exactly the way he wanted,” an official said. “In the end, they (the US) were chasing him.”

Modi first snubbed the US in November, when the American embassy requested a meeting between Powell and him in New Delhi on the margins of a series of rallies he was to hold in the last week of the month leading up to state elections in the capital.

A meeting on the sidelines of a public event would have helped Washington limit the criticism of an about-turn on its human rights concerns that a full-fledged, one-on-one meet would trigger.

It would also eliminate the need for Powell to seek prior approval from the external affairs ministry. The foreign office, under diplomatic protocol, only expects to be consulted for pre-scheduled, one-on-one meetings between foreign diplomats and constitutional office-holders in India. The foreign ministry, officials confirmed, was not told about the attempted November meet.

But Modi refused to meet Powell on the sidelines of any public event in New Delhi, insisting that any meeting take place in his Gandhinagar office.

The US embassy spokesperson hinted at the November attempt at brokering a truce, but did not comment on details.

“This (the February 13 meeting) is a part of our concerted outreach to senior political and business leaders that began in November to highlight the India-US relationship,” the spokesperson told The Telegraph.

The second snub came in December, when US Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo from Barack Obama’s Democratic Party wanted to meet Modi along with five Republican Congressmen. Republican Congressmen had earlier too met Modi, but the presence of a Democrat was meant to signal a thaw from Obama’s party.

But Modi turned down a meet with the delegation, citing the arrest of diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York on charges of visa fraud.

The Gujarat government then told the US embassy that Powell would need the foreign ministry’s approval for a meeting with Modi. The US embassy wrote to the foreign ministry in January, officials said.

Although Modi and the Congress leadership have traded vitriolic barbs in election campaigning, the government had no reason to block the meeting, and approved it on February 7, officials said.

When foreign diplomats meet chief ministers, talks usually revolve around investment. But Modi and Powell will talk about India-US relations, in a willing recognition by Washington that he may be Prime Minister in a few months.

Modi’s snubs appear rooted both in the US delay in breaking the ice with him, and in a specific spat in September 2013.

The BJP had invited Powell to attend Modi’s rally in Delhi on September 29, but the US embassy indicated that Powell would not be able to attend the event.

Washington had begun a thaw in ties with Modi that began on November 16, 2010, when then American consul-general in Mumbai Michael Owen met him in Gandhinagar.

But in September, 2013, the US was still contemplating whether to formally signal an end to its boycott --- a message that would need a meeting between Modi and a senior representative of the Obama administration like the American ambassador to India.

The European Union’s top envoy in India and the ambassadors of Italy, Germany, Greece and six other European nations had already met Modi earlier in the year. And in October, British high commissioner James Bevan travelled to Gandhinagar to meet Modi, the highest diplomatic contact between the UK and the chief minister since the riots.

An angry BJP withdrew the September invitation, leaving US officials worried that they may have burnt under-construction bridges with Modi, who had earlier that month been declared the party’s prime ministerial candidate. This Thursday, the reconstruction will start.