Aiming for a fresh start in troubled U.S.-India relations, U.S. Sen. John McCain met with newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi today in New Delhi. But McCain's two-day visit was overshadowed by reports that the U.S. National Security Agency was granted permission in 2010 to spy on Modi's political party.
McCain is the first senior American politician to meet with Modi, who has had uneasy relations with Washington even before the latest NSA flap.
Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden purport to show that Modi's party, the BJP, was among a number of foreign governments and organizations targeted for possible surveillance by the NSA. (The Washington Post, which first published the revelations, notes that nearly every foreign government was on the list of potential targets approved by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court except four: Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.)
India termed any possible "intrusions of privacy ... of Indian citizens and Indian entities totally objectionable" and summoned the interim U.S. ambassador to explain the NSA reports. The U.S. has yet to replace career diplomat Nancy Powell, who retired in May. And it's not the first time that allegations of U.S. spying have caused a furor: New Delhi lodged a complaint last July over reports that its U.N. mission in New York and embassy in Washington, D.C., were snooped on.
The latest controversy erupted as McCain, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, arrived to promote U.S. defense contracts. The Arizona senator told his colleagues last week that the U.S. should assist India in modernizing its armed forces. American, French and British defense contractors are lining up for potentially lucrative defense deals with India, which is among the world's leading armaments buyers.
The U.S. also faces the delicate issue of once having barred Modi from U.S. soil over alleged violations of religious freedom stemming from Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 while he was the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat.
Modi is expected to travel to the United States in September for the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The White House is awaiting a decision on whether Modi will accept an invitation to come to Washington as well.
Seeking to smooth U.S.-India relations, McCain has joined a chorus of American lawmakers who would like to extend to Modi the rare honor of addressing a joint session of Congress.