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John McCain becomes first high-ranking U.S. official to visit India’s new prime minister

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi. (AFP photo/PIB)

Narendra Modi was once a persona non grata in the United States, denied a visa over religious rioting in his home state more than a decade ago.

But on Thursday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) became the first of several high-ranking U.S. officials to visit India's new prime minister, part of an all-out charm offensive this summer that the United States hopes will smooth over any lingering resentment and pave the way for Modi's planned visit to the United States later this year.

Modi is expected to meet President Obama at the White House after traveling to New York for the U.N. General Assembly meeting in late September, and officials are mulling over the best way to welcome him, including the possibility of a state dinner. (India's last state dinner, Obama's first, was overshadowed by a sari-clad socialite and her husband, who crashed the party and created a national security firestorm.)

McCain -- who will be followed to India by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry in the coming weeks - is also pushing for Modi to address a joint meeting of Congress. McCain met the prime minister - whom he described as "relaxed" -- at Modi's sprawling residence on Race Course Road in New Delhi after two days of meetings in the country's capital. Modi, who often speaks in Hindi in official settings, spoke in Hindi in his opening remarks but reverted to English later, McCain said.

The two discussed the ongoing India-China border disputes, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and India's nuclear liability law, which has so far been a barrier to U.S. companies investing in Indian power projects.

Modi, who has visited China, admires its large-scale infrastructure projects but has moved to beef up defense posts along the disputed border. The United States, for its part, sees a strong relationship with India as a counterweight to China's rise.

McCain even made a joke about the impressive mandate Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party had achieved at the polls, where it won an outright majority of seats in Parliament for the first time in years.

"We kind of joked about it," McCain said. "He recognizes expectations are incredibly high. I said, 'You have the greatest expectations since the Second Coming.' He laughed."

Officials and analysts say both countries are hoping to reenergize their relationship, which had flagged over the civil nuclear liability and other economic issues as well as the visa fraud arrest of a junior Indian diplomat in New York in December.

McCain said Modi did not appear to harbor any resentment over his own visa issue, which had festered for years. He was been denied a U.S. visa in 2005 on the grounds that he had violated religious freedoms by failing to do enough to stop rioting between Hindus and Muslims when he was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat in 2002. Obama put the matter to rest on the day in May that Modi's party sailed to victory by calling and inviting him to Washington.

"He's now the elected leader of the world's largest democracy," McCain said. "How else can you treat him but as a person in that position? I don't particularly like the stories I read about his involvement, but the people in India elected him as their leader, and we need to deal with it."

Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.



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