* Highest profile meeting between Modi and U.S. officials
since visa ban
* Boycott stems back to deadly riots in Gujarat
* European countries have already held talks with man who
could be next Indian prime minister
By Frank Jack Daniel
NEW DELHI, Feb 11 (Reuters) - U.S. ambassador to India Nancy
Powell is to meet the politician who could become India's next
prime minister, Narendra Modi, signalling a softening of the
U.S. position since the Hindu nationalist was denied a visa over
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is considered the
favourite to form a government after a general election due by
May. He is also the chief minister of Gujarat state, where in
2002, Hindu mobs killed at least 1,000 people, most of them
"We can confirm the appointment," a U.S. embassy spokesman
said. "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 meeting, which could happen as soon as this week, will
be the highest profile encounter between U.S. officials and Modi
since the U.S. State Department revoked his visa in 2005 over
the riots, which erupted after some Hindus were killed in a fire
on a train.
The United States and India have developed a close
commercial and strategic relationship over recent years and they
share almost $100 billion worth of annual trade. The United
States sees India as a regional counterweight to China.
Underscoring growing economic ties, the U.S. automaker Ford
is due to open a plant in Gujarat this year. General
Motors already has a production facility there.
But the India-U.S. friendship is often problematic, with
disputes over market access and a recent row over the behaviour
of an Indian diplomat in the United States damaging sentiment in
The change in the U.S. position on Modi is likely to anger
rights groups and members of the Muslim community who say Modi
allowed or even actively encouraged attacks on Muslims in the
Modi has always denied the accusations, and a Supreme Court
inquiry found no evidence to prosecute him.
Britain became the first European country to end an informal
boycott on meeting Modi, which had been in place since the
riots. Other European countries followed suit last year.
The U.S. consul general met Modi two years ago, and
Republican lawmakers recently visited Gujarat and invited him to
the United States. However, as of last year the U.S. State
Department said it had not moved to reconsider its stance on the
In January, the U.S. Commission on International Religious
Freedom, a government agency which recommended that a visa be
denied to Modi in 2005, told Reuters it had not changed its
Powell will travel to Gujarat's capital, Gandhinagar, to
meet Modi in his office, an aide of the candidate told Reuters.
It was not clear what would be discussed, but the meeting could
happen on Thursday or Friday, a Gujarat official said.
The Hindustan Times newspaper cited a BJP leader as saying
the talks would focus on bilateral ties and not Modi's U.S.
visa, which is a sensitive subject among his supporters.
Senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha, who is seen a possible
candidate for finance minister in a Modi government, was last
year quoted by media as saying India should cancel U.S.
President Barack Obama's visa to India if he did not come to
Delhi to hand over a visa to Modi.
India and the United States are working to repair the damage
done to ties by the recent row over the arrest and strip search
of an Indian diplomat in New York, which led to the cancellation
of high-level visits and the downgrading of privileges for U.S.
envoys in India.
Adding another irritant to the relationship, on Monday, the
United States said it would take India to the World Trade
Organization to gain a bigger foothold for U.S. manufacturers in
its fast-growing solar products market.
Opinion polls show Modi's BJP has the edge in the election
race but is unlikely to get a majority and may struggle to win
enough seats to form a stable coalition government.