Obama courts India's Modi after election sweep

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Barack Obama on Friday told India's future prime minister Narendra Modi that he hopes they can work closely and invited the once-shunned Hindu nationalist leader to visit Washington.

Mr Obama telephoned Mr Modi to offer his congratulations for his Bharatiya Janata Party's crushing election victory and invited him "to visit Washington at a mutually agreeable time to further strengthen our bilateral relationship." Mr Obama said "he looks forward to working closely with Mr Modi to fulfill the extraordinary promise of the US-India strategic partnership, and they agreed to continue expanding and deepening the wide-ranging cooperation between our two democracies," the White House said in a statement.

Mr Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, was controversially refused a visa to visit the United States in 2005 over allegations he turned a blind eye or worse to deadly anti-Muslim riots in the western state three years earlier.

But State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that Mr Modi would face no problems visiting as prime minister because he would receive a special A-1 visa as a head of government.

"The prime minister of India will be welcomed in the United States," White House spokesman Jay Carney said after results gave a massive victory to Modi's party in the world's largest-ever election.

Secretary of State John Kerry tweeted his congratulations, saying that he looked forward to working with Modi's government to build "shared prosperity" and security.

With the United States steering clear until recently, Mr Modi has visited China and Japan in a sign to some observers that his foreign policy interests may lie in East Asia, rather than in the West.

But as it became increasingly clear Mr Modi was riding a political wave in India, outgoing US ambassador Nancy Powell met him for closed-door talks in February, following the lead of Britain, which was quicker to end its post-riot boycott of the Gujarat leader.

Mr Obama forged close ties with outgoing Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a respected economist from the left-leaning Congress party, and in 2010 visited the country and threw his support behind New Delhi's campaign for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.

India is a key part of Mr Obama's policy of pivoting US power to Asia. On his 2010 visit, Mr Obama called the budding strategic relationship between the world's two largest democracies "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century." But relations have drifted recently, antagonized by the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York who was strip-searched over claims she mistreated a domestic servant.

The departure of Powell, a veteran diplomat, less than two years into her troubled term was seen by some in India as a sign that Washington wanted to revive relations once the elections were finished.

Election Commission results showed that the Bharatiya Janata Party, in opposition since 2004, had won the first outright majority by one party in parliament since the Congress party in 1984.

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