The U.S.’s top diplomat in India will meet leading opposition candidate Narendra Modi for the first time since he was denied a visa over his alleged role in 2002 riots that killed about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.
U.S. Ambassador Nancy Powell will meet Modi this week, Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for India’s ministry of external affairs, told reporters in New Delhi today. The U.S. denied Modi a visa in 2005 under rules that bar officials who were responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom.”
“This is part of our concentrated outreach to senior political and business leaders, which began in November to highlight the U.S.-India relationship,” Unni Menon, a spokesman at the U.S embassy in New Delhi, said by phone.
Opinion polls show Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party winning the most seats in an election due by May while falling short of a majority. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ruling Congress party has seen its popularity fall while overseeing the slowest economic growth in a decade in the nation of 1.2 billion people.
The BJP welcomed the U.S. announcement, Captain Abhimanyu, a party spokesman, said by phone. Modi has proved his record of good governance and has never been charged with any wrongdoing, he said.
“Modi had nothing really to prove to people outside of India,” Abhimanyu said. “There was just a section of the media and his political opponents who had tried to malign him.”
Western governments have warmed to Modi as he rose in the ranks of the BJP. The U.K., Australia and the European Union have resumed ties with Modi over the past few years.
Modi has trumpeted his transformation of Gujarat into one of India’s most business-friendly states, luring investors with faster approval process for developments, a network of roads and ports and uninterrupted power supply, a rarity in India. Political opponents and rights groups had earlier accused him of allowing the 2002 violence to continue.
The riots saw Hindu mobs rape and kill Muslims after a fire on a train claimed 58 lives, among them Hindu pilgrims. Modi allegedly instructed police to stand down and allow the violence to go on, according to findings by a Concerned Citizens Tribunal, a group with no legal standing comprised of former judges, professors and a retired police officer.
Modi denies any wrongdoing and a Supreme Court-appointed panel investigating one documented incident found no evidence that he made decisions that prevented victims from receiving assistance. He said he did his best to maintain law and order, and his administration later won re-election in the state.
The BJP is set to win 188 seats in the 545-member lower house, surpassing the 182 seats it won in 1999, according to a C-Voter poll for India Today published on Jan. 23. Congress may get as few as 91 seats versus 210 now, dropping to its lowest on record, the poll indicated, without giving a margin of error.
Tensions between the U.S. and India increased in December after diplomat Devyani Khobragade was arrested in New York, strip-searched and charged with visa fraud for allegedly underpaying her babysitter. Khobragade returned to India on Jan. 10 after she was indicted.