Speaker of the House Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanTrump faces test of power with early endorsements Lobbying world Boehner throws support behind Republican who backed Trump impeachment MORE announced earlier this month that he has invited Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address a joint session of Congress on June 8. This will be the Indian leader’s fourth trip to the United States in two years. Although the invitation is a potent reminder of the robust ties between the Washington and New Delhi, its real significance lies elsewhere: it is the final step in Prime Minister Modi’s political rehabilitation in the United States.  

On the surface, Speaker Ryan’s invitation appears routine. Every single full-term Indian prime minister since 1984 has addressed a joint session of Congress, and Mr. Modi will be the fifth one to do so after Dr. Manmohan Singh in 2005. The June address could simply be seen as consistent with past practice. 


But such a reading would ignore the turbulent history surrounding Prime Minister Modi’s relationship with Washington. In 2005, Congress, in conjunction with the State Department, effectively banned Mr. Modi from the United States while he was chief minister of the Indian state Gujarat. They alleged he had failed to stem communal riots that engulfed his home state three years earlier in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. U.S. officials revoked his visa to the United States by invoking an obscure law enacted by Congress in 1998 intended to hold foreign officials responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom.” He remains the only foreign leader to have ever been denied a visa under the law. 

As a result, Mr. Modi was prohibited from setting foot inside the United States. The policy rendering him persona non grata remained in place for nearly a decade, with few in Washington at the time predicting Chief Minister Modi would one day become Prime Minister Modi.  

By contrast, several other Western nations which had also shunned over the riots Mr. Modi moved quickly to repair ties after various Indian tribunals found no evidence of wrongdoing against him. They were also eager to build commercial and economic ties with the man being widely hailed as India’s most successful chief minister whose political star was fast rising. 

The United States began limited outreach to Mr. Modi just months before it became clear he would become India’s next prime minister. While there was little doubt the United States would engage the leader of the world’s largest democracy given India’s importance to the United States, questions persisted over whether Washington would genuinely embrace the man it had spurned for so long.   

Prime Minister Modi’s inaugural visit to the United States in September 2014 seemed to dispel any lingering doubt. Washington moved quickly to consolidate ties with the new premier. President Obama took Prime Minister Modi on an unscheduled, personal tour of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, photographs of which were displayed outside the Oval Office shortly after the visit. Vice-President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry hosted a luncheon at the State Department in Prime Minister Modi’s honor, while Congressional leadership met privately with him as well.   

The highlight of the trip, however, occurred in New York City, not Washington. The Diaspora community organized a rally for Prime Minister Modi in the city’s iconic Madison Square Garden. Approximately 20,000 ecstatic members of the community from across North America gave him a raucous welcome more fitting for a rock star than a political leader. Dozens of Members of Congress stood on stage with the new Indian leader eclipsed by his celebrity and awestruck by the euphoria he generated within the crowd. 

The September 2014 trip generally is commonly regarded as the turning point in Washington’s complex relationship with the Indian leader. At the same time, some observers noted that the Prime Minister was not invited to address a joint session of the House and Senate despite requests by some Members of Congress. Consensus appeared to emerge that speaking to a joint session was the last and final stage of Prime Minister Modi’s political rehabilitation within the United States.   

Although then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner: Trump 'stepped all over their loyalty' by lying to followers Boehner finally calls it as he sees it Harry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' MORE attributed the lack of an invitation to the “the unpredictability of the House schedule,” many observers in both Washington and New Delhi viewed it as evidence of Congress’ reticence in fully embracing the new Indian premier and a way to subtly deny Mr. Modi legitimacy because of his controversial human rights record. While the trip played a significant role in mending ties, there remained a persistent feeling that Washington was still denying him the full range of honors any other Indian leader would have otherwise received.

Now, less than two years later, Prime Minister Modi will address the same body that denied him entry into the United States for nearly a decade. The speech to the joint session is an important personal victory not just for him, but also for his legions of supporters within the Diaspora who assiduously worked to change the perception of Prime Minister Modi within Congress. 

While many lawmakers continue to be critical of his commitment to protecting minorities and civil liberties in India, the number of Modi supporters far outweighs the number of his detractors within Congress. Once the bastion of anti-Modi sentiment in Washington, Capitol Hill will now welcome the Indian premier to its hallowed chambers. On June 8, Prime Minister Modi’s transformation from international pariah to indispensable partner will finally be complete. 

Ronak D. Desai is a fellow at New America and an Affiliate at the Belfer Center's India and South Asia Program at Harvard University.