NEW DELHI - The United States would welcome Indian opposition leader Narendra Modi if he wins the upcoming election, a US official said, in the clearest sign Washington will drop a travel ban on Modi imposed after anti-Muslim riots in 2002.
US Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal told a television interviewer that Washington was ready to do business with Modi, the front runner ahead of the April-May general election who is best placed to form a coalition government.
"I would just say that the United States has welcomed every leader of this vibrant democracy, and that a democratically elected leader of India will be a welcome partner," Biswal told Headlines Today when asked if Modi, as prime minister, would be granted a US visa.
Biswal made her comments in New Delhi on a visit to rebuild trade and political ties shaken by a row over the arrest in New York last December of an Indian diplomat suspected of visa fraud.
US Ambassador to India Nancy Powell visited Modi at his home in Gandhinagar in western Gujarat state last month, ending a long estrangement over riots that erupted in the state governed by the Hindu nationalist leader.
At least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in 2002 when mobs went on a rampage across Gujarat after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was torched, killing 59 people.
Powell's visit was the highest-profile encounter between US officials and Modi since the State Department revoked his visa in 2005 over the bloodshed to which rights activists say he turned a blind eye. He denies the allegation.
Biswal said the United States hoped India would continue to build a tolerant, moderate and secular society when asked if Washington had put its human rights concerns on the back burner because of Modi's political rise.
"Visa issues are handled on a case by case basis. And determinations are made based on the facts of the day and are reviewed at the time that a request is made," she said according to a transcript released by the US embassy.
The US administration, which does not want to be seen as taking sides in the Indian election campaign, has stopped short of stating publicly that Modi would be able to travel to the United States should he win the lower house election, leading to speculation that he would not be welcome in Washington.
But diplomats say the until the election results are known, the question of whether Modi would be given a visa is hypothetical. Should he become the country's next leader, he would automatically receive a US visa, they say.
Modi himself has not commented on the travel ban, but for his supporters in the Bharatiya Janata Party and outside the US decision has been a sore point. Senior party leader Arun Jaitley said last month that the US boycott had not been based on any evidence or court verdict but on "excessive propaganda".
Britain was the first European country to end its boycott on meeting Modi followed by other European countries last year.