Narendra Modi is tipped to become India's next prime minister. After boycotting him for years over his alleged role in the anti-Muslim pogroms of 2002, the US now seeks to restore ties with the politician.
According to the latest opinion polls, the Hindu-nationalist Bhartaya Janata Party (BJP) has a very good chance of winning India's upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for April/May this year and snatching power away from the ruling Congress party.
Party leader Narendra Modi has also been chief minister of the western state of Gujarat for over a decade, during which the state has developed and boomed in economic terms.
"Modi appears to become stronger and stronger," says Alka Acharya, a professor for Asian Studies in New Delhi. "When you're looking around for a leader, he appears to be providing the kind of strength and stability needed. There is really no other leader in sight."
She explains that this has a lot to do with the weakness of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government that has been plagued by corruption scandals for years.
The opinion polls indicate that Indian voters are looking for more decisive leadership which will bring an end to the reform stagnation that has settled in.
Controversial role in pogroms
However, Modi's image is tainted by his alleged role in anti-Muslim pogroms, for which the US declared him a "persona non grata" in 2005. According to the official statistics, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus died in the riots that engulfed Gujarat in the spring of 2002.
However, the unofficial figures are much higher - some 1,000 Muslims are thought to have been killed. Over 18,000 Muslim homes were reportedly torched and 200,000 Muslims were displaced.
The anti-Muslim pogroms broke out when a train carrying dozens of Hindu activists among others caught fire under mysterious circumstances in the western Indian state of Gujarat resulting in 58 deaths. Unconfirmed reports published at the time had blamed Muslims, but the cause of the fire was never clarified.
Human rights groups in India and the US showered accusations on Modi after the riots, claiming he had deliberately turned a blind eye to the violence and had done nothing to prevent it.
Later, an official investigation by India's Supreme Court found that there was no evidence against Modi, who has always rejected the allegations. However, a member of his cabinet was jailed for inciting racial hatred.
The fact that Narendra Modi was a "persona non grata" in the US was OK as long as he was only chief minister of one state. But with his increasing chances of becoming head of the central government, the situation has changed.
The US ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, recently held talks with Modi for over an hour. "I think that the US is playing safe in the context of not harming their economic and political relations with the government that might be formed after the elections," comments CSR Murthy, a professor of politics in New Delhi.
"You can't have the United States treating the potential next prime minister as an untouchable," agrees Alka Acharya. "Clearly this meeting is the first step towards removing Modi's persona non grata status."
A balancing act
Thanks to the economic development in Gujarat, Modi has been able to transform his image considerably. Many in the West now consider him a politician who will be able to push through economic reforms and continue the course of liberalization in India. In other words, a man who cannot be ignored.
European nations, including Germany, have already quietly normalized their relations with Modi. However, it might not be so easy in the future if Modi wants to travel abroad, says CSR Murthy: "Those who were affected by the riots and might be residents of other countries could make a police complaint and governments would have to take action, perhaps even by denying Modi a visa. Modi is such a polarizing person that I am sure there will be complaints."
After Nancy Powell met Modi at his official residence in the state capital Gandhinagar, the embassy tried to play it down. "This meeting was part of the US mission's outreach to senior leaders of India's major political parties in advance of the upcoming national elections," it said in a statement.