India has just voted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into power in a big way, putting Narendra Modi in office as prime minister. Modi is a pragmatist, focused on economic growth and good governance. But he's also a polarizing figure, under whose watch bloody Hindu-Muslims riots occured in 2002 in Gujarat -- leading the United States to deny him a visa in 2005. Although Modi has been exonerated by the Indian legal system, his past, coupled with concerns among the Indian and global human rights community, presents challenges for U.S. engagement. But the U.S. relationship with India is too important to allow drift to set in. Washington should meet Modi on pragmatic ground, and reframe the relationship in practical terms of mutually beneficial cooperation.
Modi spent most of his professional life in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or National Volunteers' Organization, a conservative Hindu nationalist organization, and hails from a subordinate caste group, yet he rose from chief minister of Gujarat to prime minister in under 15 years. His political rise represents a story of merit unencumbered by disadvantages of birth. But he has become indelibly associated with the tragedy of the 2002 Gujarat riots, where intra-communal violence led to the death of more than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims. At best, Modi was seen as not acting quickly or decisively enough to prevent the mayhem; his detractors accused him of fomenting it.