Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, right, greets US ambassador to India Nancy Powell with a bunch of flowers ahead of their meeting in Gandhinagar yesterday. Photo: AP
The United States has ended a decade-long boycott of the Indian opposition leader Narendra Modi over deadly religious riots as a top diplomat held talks with the man tipped to be the country's next prime minister.
Nancy Powell, the US ambassador to India, shook hands with Modi, who presented her with a bouquet of flowers at his official residence in western Gujarat state where he is chief minister, before entering closed-door talks.
Photos showed a smiling Powell receiving the flowers and later a locally made painting, but she did not speak to reporters after the almost hour-long meeting in the state capital, Gandhinagar.
"This meeting was part of the US mission's outreach to senior leaders of India's major political parties in advance of the upcoming national elections," the US embassy said in a statement.
Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), is accused by rights groups of turning a blind eye to riots that killed up to 2,000 people in Gujarat in 2002. Most of the victims were Muslims.
The United States in 2005 refused a visa for Modi under a domestic law that bars entry to any foreign official seen as responsible for "severe violations of religious freedom".
Modi has denied any wrongdoing over the 2002 violence 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.
Powell's meeting with Modi brings the US in line with European countries and Australia, which have already restored ties with him, as opinion polls show Modi is on course to win power at general elections in May.
A BJP spokeswoman in New Delhi described the meeting as a "routine diplomatic exchange" before adding: "The US is realising that Mr Modi will be the future prime minister of the country."
If elected premier, Modi would be highly unlikely to experience hassles with travel to the US, which generally allows visits by leaders of friendly countries.
A US congressional aide said this week that a meeting with Powell would signal Washington's willingness to issue a visa to Modi if he were to apply.
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.
The US car maker Ford is due to open a production plant this year in Gujarat, where Modi is praised for running an efficient, pro-business government. General Motors already has a facility there.
The strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney said the United States was "trying to show that it is willing to kiss and make up" given the likelihood of Modi tipping Congress from power in May.
"Mr Modi is ahead of his political rivals in all the opinion polls, so the US is simply seeking to protect its economic and strategic interests," Chellaney, from the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, told AFP.
Powell will also meet the Congress opposition leader in the state parliament, non-governmental groups and US and Indian businesses while in Gujarat. The US embassy statement emphasised that both sides were seeking "a strategic partnership that is broad and deep".
The Congress leader Shankarsinh Vaghela said Powell wanted to know about human rights, judicial and other issues in Gujarat during their meeting.
The US and India have built a growing relationship since estrangement in the cold war, with most US lawmakers supportive of ties with Delhi.
But Modi has faced opposition from left-leaning members of the US Congress active on human rights as well as academics.
An invitation for Modi to speak last year via Skype at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania was withdrawn after student organisers and professors protested against his participation.
The US-India relationship went through one of its worst crises in years at the end of last year when American authorities arrested a New-York-based Indian diplomat on charges of underpaying her servant. Indian lawmakers and commentators accused US authorities of humiliating the diplomat through a strip-search. The row abated a month ago when the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, was allowed to return to India just as she was indicted.