The United States ambassador to India met the Hindu nationalist leader who could be India’s next prime minister on Thursday – a big step towards ending Washington’s shunning of him over sectarian violence in 2002.
Ambassador Nancy Powell met Narendra Modi in Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat state, where he is chief minister.
It was the highest-profile encounter between U.S. officials and Modi since the State Department revoked his visa in 2005 over the bloodshed there three years previously.
Television footage showed her shaking Modi’s hand and smiling, while he gave her a bunch of red and yellow flowers. They then sat in a meeting room at his residence accompanied by officials.
In a statement released afterwards, the embassy said the meeting was part of its “outreach” to senior leaders of India’s major political parties before elections, which are due by May.
Powell’s talks with Modi and others in Gujarat focused on the importance of the U.S.-India relationship, regional security, human rights, and U.S. trade and investment in India.
“The United States and India are moving forward with a strategic partnership that is broad and deep,” it said.
The meeting took place, however, at a delicate time.
The two countries are developing closer commercial and strategic ties and share almost $100 billion worth of annual trade. But an often volatile relationship has come under strain because of a simmering trade dispute and a row over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York after she was accused of visa fraud and underpaying her maid.
It was not immediately known if the question of Modi’s visa status came up at the meeting with Powell. Officials and analysts said that if he was to become prime minister, the United States was unlikely to uphold its ban.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, is considered the favorite to form a government after the general election.
“The guy would be prime minister and that’s different from being chief minister. You can’t shut out the prime minister of one of our largest allies and someone who frankly is very pro-American,” a congressional source in Washington told a foreign news agency.
Modi has always denied accusations that he allowed or even encouraged attacks on Muslims in the 2002 riots and a Supreme Court inquiry found no evidence to prosecute him.
The violence erupted after 59 people, mostly Hindu pilgrims, were killed in a fire on a train. Hindu crowds subsequently killed at least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, across Gujarat.