Obama congratulates, invites Modi to visit U.S. despite 2005 visa ban

President Barack Obama is inviting India’s next prime minister, Narendra Modi, to visit the United States, offering a fresh start to a relationship bruised by a decision years ago not to let Modi into the U.S.

In a phone call to Modi on Friday, Obama congratulated the Indian leader and his Bharatiya Janata Party on their victory in India’s national election, the White House said. Obama told Modi he looks forward to co-operating closely to deepen the relationship between the U.S. and the world’s largest democracy.

Obama invited Modi to come to Washington “at a mutually agreeable time to further strengthen our bilateral relationship,” the White House said.

The invitation marked an attempt to bury the hatchet with Modi and repair ties between the U.S. and India that were strained by the arrest late last year of an Indian diplomat in New York.

A Hindu nationalist and leader of India’s opposition, Modi was decisively elected India’s next leader in what the White House described as the largest free and fair election in human history.

But in 2005, Washington denied Modi a visa, alleging he was complicit in religious riots in 2002 that killed more than 1,000 Muslims.

Modi’s party maintains he was exonerated when investigators appointed by India’s Supreme Court in 2010 did not find prosecutable evidence that Modi had wilfully allowed the 2002 communal violence. Still, rights groups maintain there is strong evidence linking Modi’s administration with the attacks.

The Obama administration started mending ties in February by dispatching the U.S. ambassador and other top officials to meet with Modi as his potential victory in the elections looked increasingly likely. That reconciliation appeared to take a major step forward on Friday with the congratulatory call from Obama.

“Once the government is formed, we look forward to working closely with the prime minister and the Cabinet to advance our strong bilateral relationship based on shared democratic values,” Carney said.

Secretary of State John Kerry added his congratulations on Twitter, pledging to work with Modi to promote shared prosperity and security. His spokeswoman at the State Department, Jen Psaki, said that as the head of a foreign government, Modi would be eligible for an A-1 visa, the type given to foreign diplomats and government officials.

Josh Lederman, AP

AP writer Matthew Pennington contributed to this report.

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