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US softens stance on India's Modi

Narendra Modi, the controversial leader of Gujarat state, can apply for a US visa, a US official has said, in an apparent softening of Washington's stance towards him.

November 01, 2012 / 03:15 PM IST

Narendra Modi, the controversial leader of Gujarat state, can apply for a US visa, a US official has said, in an apparent softening of Washington's stance towards him.

Mr Modi - seen by some Indians as a future prime minister - has been denied entry to the US since 2005 under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which bars visas for foreign officials responsible for serious violations of religious freedom.

The firebrand Hindu nationalist politician was accused of complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots in which more than 2,000 mostly Muslims were slaughtered by Hindu mobs after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was firebombed by Muslims.

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Maya Kodnani, one of Mr Modi's political associates and senior officials, was convicted of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy along with 31 others in August - more than a decade after the crimes - and sentenced to 28 years in jail. But Mr Modi has never been charged or convicted, and has denied involvement.

"He's free to apply for another visa whenever he chooses and . . . the system will take its course," Robert Blake, US assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs, told Times Now television during a visit to India.

The interview transcript was posted on the US embassy website. Last November, when Mr Blake was asked whether Mr Modi would be granted a visa, he had replied that there were "no new developments on that".

"We have very good relations with Gujarat. It's obviously a very, very important market for our American companies," Mr Blake said in the Times Now interview. "We do everything we can to promote trade, and not just with Gujarat but with all the states of India."

Ford is among the US companies that have invested in industrial plants in Gujarat.

Earlier this month, Britain said it would renew ties with Mr Modi, who became chief minister of the business-friendly state of Gujarat in 2001. Other western nations, including Sweden, have also quietly dropped out of a "gentleman's agreement" to shun him.

Mr Modi is one of the most prominent leaders of the Bharatiya Janata party, the Hindu nationalist opposition to the Congress-led coalition government of India. His chances of being a candidate for prime minister will increase if he is re-elected as chief minister with a large majority in Gujarat's state election in December.

Although the US has not explicitly said it will grant Mr Modi a visa, the invitation for him to apply suggests that he has been taken off the banned list. "It's a peculiar case," said one person familiar with the matter. "He's never been convicted."

Mr Modi's supporters, including entrepreneurs of Gujarati origin living in the US and the UK, have pressed the US and British governments to renew links.

In India, foreign and domestic investors express admiration for his quick decision-making and for improvements to transport and electricity infrastructure in Gujarat when much of the rest of India suffers from long project delays and power shortages.

His opponents, including Congress politicians and social activists, say the "Gujarat model" favours big business and has neglected the poor, leaving health and education in a sorry condition given the state's relative wealth.

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