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In unexpected turnaround, US will meet India opposition PM hopeful

WASHINGTON--The U.S. ambassador to India plans to meet opposition candidate for prime minister Narendra Modi, an official said Monday, signaling a turnaround after years of shunning him over anti-Muslim riots.

Ambassador Nancy Powell's encounter with the Hindu nationalist leader would put the United States in line with European nations and Australia, which have already ended a boycott of Modi amid growing indications that he will take the helm of the world's largest democracy in elections due by the end of May.

A State Department official confirmed an appointment between Modi and Powell, without specifying a date.

“This is part of our concentrated outreach to senior political and business leaders which began in November to highlight the U.S.-India relationship,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Human rights groups say that Modi, the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, turned a blind eye to riots in 2002 that killed up to 2,000 people, most of them Muslims.

The United States in 2005 revoked a visa for Modi under a domestic law that bars entry by any foreign official seen as responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom.”

Modi has denied wrongdoing and investigations have cleared him of personal blame, although one of his former ministers was jailed for life for instigating the killing of 97 Muslims.

The United States and India have built a growing relationship since estrangement in the Cold War, with most U.S. lawmakers supportive of ties with New Delhi.

But Modi has faced opposition from an unlikely mix of left-leaning members of the U.S. Congress active on human rights and conservatives concerned over the status of evangelical Christians.

A congressional aide said a meeting with Powell would send a signal of U.S. openness on issuing a visa — an issue on which the United States has little way of changing course unless Modi again applies to travel to the United States.

“A meeting with the ambassador could be a way of signaling, 'You'll get a visa,' without having to say it, which she can't,” the aide told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Symbolism at Stake

Modi has sought to portray himself as a business-savvy leader who can champion India's economy and tackle corruption after a decade of rule by the left-leaning Congress party.

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