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US faces Modi prospect

Washington, May 13 (Reuters): President Barack Obama faces the prospect this week of having to offer his congratulations to a leader who was barred from the US less than 10 years ago over the 2002 Gujarat riots.

According to exit poll results, BJP’s Narendra Modi is set to become India’s next Prime Minister.

A Modi victory would be a blow to campaigners who have long held him responsible for the 2002 Gujarat riots in which over 1,000 people died.

Modi was shunned by western nations for years after the bloodshed in the state where he has been chief minister since 2001. He was denied a US visa in 2005 under the terms of a 1998 US law which bars entry to foreigners who have committed “particularly severe violations of religious freedom”.

Modi’s rise on the national stage, however, and the importance of relations with India, which the US sees as a key counterbalance to China in Asia, have forced a rethink.

Modi has denied any wrongdoing in 2002 and, in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that he had no case to answer.

The US state department has repeatedly declined to spell out whether it will issue a visa to Modi as Prime Minister, but analysts say it is all but certain he will be given one because of the “strategic” nature of the US-India relationship, which Obama has called “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century”.

Yesterday, the state department described the Lok Sabha elections as “an inspiring example of the power of the democratic process in action” and stressed their peaceful nature.

“We view our relationship with India as one that’s vitally important for economic, strategic reasons,” spokesperson Jen Psaki said. “We look forward to working with the leaders chosen by the Indian people to advance this important partnership and to set an ambitious agenda.”

Members of the US Congress campaigned against a visa for Modi in 2005 under the International Religious Freedom Act, but the strength of the anti-Modi lobby has since dwindled.

In March, a report to the US Congress by a specialist in US immigration policy, Ruth Wasem, said if Modi were to become Prime Minister, he would be covered by diplomatic immunity and qualify for a visa.