The U.S. ambassador to India on Thursday met Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is the front-runner to be the country's next prime minister, a signal that Washington was ending a long boycott of him over sectarian violence in 2002.
Ambassador Nancy Powell met Modi in Gujarat's capital Gandhinagar. Television footage showed her shaking Modi's hand and smiling, while he gave her a bunch of red and yellow flowers.
The footage, released by the Gujarat government, also showed the two sitting in a meeting room at his residence accompanied by officials. There was no immediate word on what was discussed.
It was the highest-profile encounter between U.S. officials and Modi since the State Department revoked his visa in 2005 over riots in Gujarat three years previously. The violence erupted after 59 people, mostly Hindu pilgrims, were killed in a fire on a train. Hindu crowds subsequently killed at least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims.
Modi has always denied accusations that he allowed or even encouraged attacks on Muslims and a Supreme Court inquiry found no evidence to prosecute him.
It was not immediately known if the question of Modi's visa status came up at the meeting with Powell.
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party is considered the favourite to form a government after a general election due by May. Most analysts do not expect the United States to uphold the visa ban if he does become the prime minister.
The United States and India have developed a close commercial and strategic relationship over recent years and they share almost $100 billion worth of annual trade. The United States sees India as a regional counterweight to China.
Underscoring growing economic ties, the U.S. automaker Ford (F.N) is due to open a plant in Gujarat this year. General Motors (GM.N) already has a production facility there.
But the India-U.S. friendship is often problematic, with disputes over market access and a recent row over the behaviour of an Indian diplomat in the United States damaging sentiment in both countries.
The change in the U.S. position on Modi is likely to anger rights groups and members of the Muslim community who say Modi allowed or even actively encouraged attacks on Muslims in the 2002 riots.
Modi has always denied the accusations, and a Supreme Court inquiry found no evidence to prosecute him.
Britain became 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 U.S. consul general met Modi two years ago, and Republican lawmakers recently visited Gujarat and invited him to the United States. However, as of last year the U.S. State Department said it had not moved to reconsider its stance on the visa.
In January, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government agency which recommended that a visa be denied to Modi in 2005, told Reuters it had not changed its position.
Powell will travel to Gujarat's capital, Gandhinagar, to meet Modi in his office, an aide of the candidate told Reuters. It was not clear what would be discussed, but the meeting could happen on Thursday or Friday, a Gujarat official said.
The Hindustan Times newspaper cited a BJP leader as saying the talks would focus on bilateral ties and not Modi's U.S. visa, which is a sensitive subject among his supporters.
Senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha, who is seen a possible candidate for finance minister in a Modi government, was last year quoted by media as saying India should cancel U.S. President Barack Obama's visa to India if he did not come to Delhi to hand over a visa to Modi.
India and the United States are working to repair the damage done to ties by the recent row over the arrest and strip search of an Indian diplomat in New York, which led to the cancellation of high-level visits and the downgrading of privileges for U.S. envoys in India.
Adding another irritant to the relationship, on Monday, the United States said it would take India to the World Trade Organization to gain a bigger foothold for U.S. manufacturers in its fast-growing solar products market.
Opinion polls show Modi's BJP has the edge in the election race but is unlikely to get a majority and may struggle to win enough seats to form a stable coalition government.