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9yr US boycott ends with flowers & smiles as envoy Powell calls on Narendra Modi

Gandhinagar, Feb 13 (PTI): US ambassador Nancy Powell called on the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday, ending a nine-year boycott that began shortly after the 2002 riots in the state.

While the agenda of the meeting was kept under wraps, the US has said it is part of increased engagement with Indian leaders across the political spectrum. Modi is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for Prime Minister in general elections due later this year.

Powell was the first US ambassador to travel to the city in the last 13 years to meet Modi, who greeted the delegation with flowers and a handshake at his residence here.

The US had scotched speculation that the Modi-Powell meeting would lead to lifting of the visa ban on the BJP leader, insisting there was no change in its policy.

A consular level officer of Mumbai consulate had met Modi after his visa was revoked in 2005, but later as his stature grew in Indian politics, the chief minister had stopped giving time to junior officers.

The US State Department said any application for a visa would be treated on its merits, but the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government agency which had recommended that visas be denied to Modi in 2005, said it had not changed its position.

“Neither the passage of time nor any change in Mr Modi's position in government absolves him and his government of their alleged involvement, negligence, and complicity in the 2002 violence,” its chairman, Robert George, told Reuters.

Govinda Acharya of rights group Amnesty International said that other foreign leaders accused of human rights violations often came to the United States.

“I would speculate that Modi, if he became prime minister, would be able to visit the United States with diplomatic immunity, but not for a private visit. He would certainly be able to come, I would imagine, to the United Nations,” he said.

Britain was 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 US consul general met Modi two years ago and Republican lawmakers recently visited Gujarat and invited him to the United States.

However, business delegations from the US were always welcomed by the state administration and had also participated in bi-annual business events like 'Vibrant Gujarat'.

Due to the travel ban, Modi has so far reached out to the Indian diaspora in the US via video-conferencing.

Powell will also meet Leader of Opposition in state Assembly Shankersinh Vaghela, at his residence in Gandhinagar after her talks with Modi.

She is also scheduled to visit NGO Seva outlet and Pandit Deendayal Upadhayay Petroleum University later in the day.

Washington has made it clear that it was not taking any position on the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

Iterating that the US does not take positions in elections of any country, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki argued that Powell meeting Modi is not an example of the US taking a position.

”We don't take positions. So no, it wouldn't be a reflection of that. It is just a reflection, as I've stated a few times, of us reaching out to a range of individuals from different backgrounds, different political affiliations, which we do in countries around the world,” she had said.

In the last few years several European allies have met Modi.