Narendra Modi in the United States
The Shifting Perception of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the United States

In a remarkable turn of events, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his maiden state visit to the United States. He received a warm welcome from President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden. State visits are the highest-ranked category of foreign visits to the US and hold significant importance in international diplomacy. These visits also mark the importance the US places on its relationship with the visiting nation. PM Modi’s state visit aimed to strengthen the diplomatic ties between the two countries, but it also marked a significant shift in Modi’s perception within the United States.

Back in 2005, Modi faced a significant setback when he was denied a US visa as he prepared to address Indian Americans at a rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The denial resulted from his part in a series of deadly riots in Gujarat against minority Muslims, where he served as the state’s chief minister. The US State Department invoked the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which deemed foreign officials responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for visas. Modi became the first and only person to be denied a US visa under this provision.

During his first term as US President, Obama expressed reservations about Modi, citing concerns about human rights and religious freedom in India. Obama was among the lawmakers who called for visa restrictions on Modi under the IRFA. However, fast forward to 2014, when the situation took a dramatic turn. President Obama congratulated the newly appointed PM Modi after Bhartiya Janta Party’s 2014 landslide victory. In 2015, Obama also visited India as the chief guest for India’s Republic Day parade, indicating a desire to strengthen bilateral relations. The ban was seemingly forgotten as the two leaders worked towards fostering a closer partnership during Obama’s presidency.

The turning point came with the assumption of office by Donald Trump in 2017. Trump openly supported Modi and developed a close personal rapport with him. The “Howdy, Modi!” Texas event in 2019 showcased their strong camaraderie. Trump praised Modi’s leadership and emphasized the growing US-India relationship, further cementing their alliance.

Now, in 2023, the Biden administration’s warm welcome of Modi validates their belief in his leadership and the importance of the US-India partnership. The extravagant gifts exchanged and the grand Gala dinner with 400 guests at the White House exemplified the desire to bolster bilateral cooperation in various areas. In fact, this is only the third state visit by an Indian leader to the US, following President S Radhakrishnan and PM Manmohan Singh.

Not limited to political circles, public figures have also shown shifting perspectives on Modi. Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey voiced reservations to Modi and the Indian government regarding the farmer’s protests and how the Government of India pressurized Twitter into taking action against critical voices, citing a mockery of India’s democracy. However, the current Twitter CEO, Elon Musk, expressed admiration for Modi not too long ago, calling himself a fan and commending Modi’s dedication to India. Musk’s statements have even hinted at significant investments in the country. This shift in stance is a massive step in India’s growth story, as back in 2022, Musk made it clear that Tesla would not manufacture cars in India unless there was a reduction in import duty and he was allowed to sell and provide service to its electric vehicle without setting up a manufacturing plant first, leading to a diversion of resources towards other markets. However, after a meeting with  PM Modi, Musk expressed renewed enthusiasm for the Indian market. He now plans to expedite Tesla’s entry into the country and make a significant investment in the relationship while also aiming to bring SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service to India. This dramatic change indicates a potential reversal of fortunes for Tesla’s expansion plans in the Indian subcontinent.

The two countries’ leaders’ meetings have also resulted in many powerful partnerships. General Electric and Hindustan Aeronautical Limited have signed an MoU for co-producing GE 414 Jet Engines in India for the Tejas Mk2 aircraft, overcoming bureaucratic hurdles. The US-India defense collaboration extends further with the launch of the innovation platform ‘INDUS-X’ and Micron Technology’s investment in a new chip facility in Gujarat. Additionally, India is joining a space exploration framework, planning a mission to the International Space Station in 2024. The US is set to simplify visa renewals and open consulates, while India will reopen its consulate in Seattle and establish new ones.

All such positive changes leave us contemplating the power of transformation and the complexity of perception. From a controversial figure denied a US visa to a statesman welcomed with open arms, Modi’s journey represents a momentous shift in his perception over the years. Moreover, Modi’s reception in the US reminds us that political alliances and public opinion can fluctuate, sometimes dramatically, over time. It prompts us to reflect on the fleeting nature of alliances and the intricacies of international relations. As Modi works on forging new ties with Egypt following his US visit, the impact of this visit and the evolving perception of his leadership will continue to reverberate. Only time will reveal the lasting legacy of his tenure and the implications of his visit to the United States.


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