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US downplays Powell-Modi meet; insists no change in policy

Last updated on: February 12, 2014 09:54 IST

Neither Barack Obama or John F Kerry were involved in the decision for Ambassador Nancy Powell to meet Narendra Modi.'s Aziz Haniffa reports from Washington, DC.

The United States State Department, which was peppered with a barrage of questions at Tuesday's press briefing about Ambassador Nancy Powell's decision to meet with Gujarat Chief Minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi said the decision did not necessarily rise to the highest level -- meaning President Barack Obama or Secretary of State John F Kerry -- but that those in the administration who needed to weigh in, weighed in that it was time to meet with the mercurial Modi.

"We are often engaged in concentrated outreach to senior political and business leaders and we began doing that months ago, if not years ago -- in different scales, of course -- to highlight and continue our US-India relationship," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said.

"There have been no changes in our policy per se. This is an effort in that engagement. But I can certainly confirm the appointments or the meeting upcoming."

When she was pressed that it was a no-brainer that since for the 11 years after the Gujarat riots, no US ambassador has ever met with Modi, Psaki was clearly irritated and said, "I don't have any further details to share other than to convey that we do broad outreach to a range of officials in India and many countries around the world with different backgrounds. And it's simply just an example of that."

She also bristled when one questioner noted that "The Indian foreign minister, reacting to this, has said that if the US will ever forget the Holocaust -- in a way, he's linking the US ambassador's visit (to meet with Modi) to Nazi excesses."

"We would certainly refute that notion or that claim," Psaki asserted. "We meet with officials from a range of backgrounds in many, many countries, including India, and it's simply an example of that."

When asked if this backpedaling after 11 years was because it seemed inevitable that Modi may be elected India's next prime minister, she protested and stumbling for words, said, "We don't take positions in elections."

"It is just a reflection of us reaching out to a range of individuals from different backgrounds, different political affiliations, which we do in countries around the world," she asserted.

Psaki was also constrained to say that after denying Modi a US visa for years, the meeting seemingly was because of realities on the ground where he was the front-runner to become India's next prime minister and Washington had been pushed to do so under pressure from various lobbies including the Indian Diaspora working through their respective lawmakers and business interests that had been making a bee-line to Gujarat.

"There has been no change in our long-standing visa policy. When individuals apply for a visa, their applications are reviewed in accordance with US law and policy. This is not a reflection of any change. This is simply a meeting happening on the ground in India. It's not a reflection of anything else than outreach to a broad range of officials," she said.

When asked what would be the subject of the Powell-Modi summit, she said, "I think we've finished with your question."

Psaki continued to deny that the turnaround was because the State Department had succumbed to the various lobbies that it was quixotic for the US not to meet with a politician, who, by virtually all accounts, was on his way to become India's next leader.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC