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Powell jab at Modi after handshake

Narendra Modi with Nancy Powell in Gandhinagar on Thursday. (PTI)

New Delhi, Feb. 13: US ambassador to India Nancy Powell today became the senior-most American diplomat to meet Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in eight years, but quickly followed up a handshake with two sharp jabs signalling that a thaw both sides have laboured over remains incomplete.

Powell’s bosses at the US state department have quietly worked for years to cultivate a communication channel with an equally keen Modi, whose supporters in the Indian American community have aggressively lobbied on his behalf in Washington.

But large sections of the politically sensitive US Congress remain unconvinced about any move that may be viewed as overlooking concerns over Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots that were the trigger for Washington’s decision to deny him a visa in 2005.

Today, Powell walked that tightrope in a meeting both American diplomats here and the BJP have billed as a major step in signalling a breakthrough.

The US ambassador arrived at Modi’s residence in Gandhinagar around 10am, and the meeting with the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate began with a handshake followed by the Gujarat chief minister handing Powell a bouquet of flowers — all in front of cameras. She was accompanied by Peter Haas, the US consulate general in Mumbai.

But the first signal to Modi that a thaw remains incomplete came minutes later, during an hour-long conversation between Powell and the Gujarat chief minister away from the cameras.

Powell heard out Modi’s assertions on Gujarat’s development but then articulated to the chief minister that the US retained its concerns over “human rights” violations in 2002 in the state, American diplomats aware of the discussion confirmed to The Telegraph.

But an even stronger signal followed after she left his residence.

Powell, who is in Gujarat for two days, next met Modi’s long-time rival in state politics — leader of Opposition Shankarsinh Vaghela from Congress for a meeting that lasted for 50 minutes, almost as long as her meet with the chief minister. Congress leaders Arjun Modvadia and Sidharth Patel also attended that meeting.

“I told the ambassador that despite Modi’s marketing, human rights violations remain routine in Gujarat,” Vaghela told this newspaper over telephone from Gandhinagar. “I also told her that encounter killings remain frequent under Modi’s watch.”

Powell will also meet non-profit groups during her visit to Gujarat, the US embassy here said.

“Her discussions focus on the importance of the US-India relationship, regional security issues, human rights, and American trade and investment in India,” the embassy said in a statement issued after Powell’s meeting with Modi.

The messages weren’t meant only for Modi, but also for the Congress-led UPA and for critics of the Gujarat chief minister back in the US.

The state department is keen to strengthen its communication channels with Modi, but only because it does not want ties with India to suffer if the Gujarat chief minister becomes Prime Minister, US officials said.

Powell “continues to emphasise that the US-India partnership is important and strategic, and that the United States looks forward to working closely with the government that the Indian people choose in the upcoming elections”, the embassy statement said in a candid admission.

But equally, Powell’s messages today signal that the state department cannot ignore domestic political concerns in a year of crucial US congressional elections where a loss could severely limit President Barack Obama’s power to influence legislations.

Meet Mamata desire

Powell expressed her desire to meet chief minister Mamata Banerjee and a letter in this connection from her office reached Nabanna, the new state secretariat, durng the day, a Nabanna source said.


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