WASHINGTON (AP) — Indian elections results due Friday provide a chance to repair relations with the U.S. that were strained by the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York in December. But there's a big catch: Washington's uneasy relationship with the man expected to become India's next prime minister.
Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi was denied a U.S. visa in 2005 for alleged complicity in religious riots in 2002 that killed more than 1,000 Muslims. Exit polls show his Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies with a large lead over the ruling Congress party and its allies after voting ended Monday.
The Obama administration started mending fences in February, when, for the first time in Modi's decade-long tenure as the top official in Gujarat state, the U.S. ambassador met with him. Officials since have said whoever is elected India's next leader would be welcome to the U.S., leaving little doubt that if Modi becomes prime minister, he could visit Washington.
On Monday, President Barack Obama congratulated India on its national election and said the U.S. will work closely with India's next government.
"We look forward to working with the leaders chosen by the Indian people to advance this important partnership and to set an ambitious agenda," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
But the controversy over Modi's visa could leave some hard feelings.
The Bharatiya Janata Party says Modi got a clean bill when investigators appointed by India's Supreme Court in 2010 did not find prosecutable evidence that Modi had willfully allowed the 2002 communal violence, but rights groups maintain there's strong evidence linking his administration with the attacks, and he remains a divisive figure. Last year, plans for Modi to address by video a University of Pennsylvania conference on the Indian economy were scrapped following opposition from Indian-American professors, alumni and students.
Still, Modi has friends in America, including successful Indian-American businessmen with roots in Gujarat, and he's steered clear of religious politics in the campaign. U.S.-based analysts and congressional aides say Modi has little foreign policy experience, but his pro-business outlook and focus on reviving India's flagging economy could help the relationship.
"The State Department will have to be very careful in how they manage re-engagement, but in other areas the BJP looks to America as a strong natural partner for defense and economic issues. We saw that the last time the BJP was in power," said Rick Rossow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.
Strategic ties deepened under then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Under his Congress Party successor, the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, the administration of President George W. Bush forged a landmark U.S.-Indian civil nuclear agreement.
Obama also emphasized ties with India, the world's largest democracy. He visited New Delhi in 2010 and declared the U.S.-India relationship would be a "defining partnership of the 21st century." With about 3 million Indian-Americans in the U.S., people-to-people ties are strong.