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By Ross Colvin
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A visiting U.S. congressional delegation on Thursday invited the chief minister of India's Gujarat state, Narendra Modi, to the United States, despite the fact that Washington has denied him a visa since 2005 because of deadly religious riots.
The invitation was a symbolic victory for Modi, a popular but divisive Hindu nationalist leader who is widely seen as harbouring ambitions to become prime minister in 2014 and has been trying to win greater international acceptance.
However, the offer from Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives is not likely to influence whether he eventually receives a visa from the State Department, which said such invitations have "no bearing" on their decisions.
Modi is accused by critics of not doing enough to stop - or of even quietly encouraging - riots in 2002 in which at least 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed. He has denied the accusations but they have cast a shadow over his political ambitions and for years he was shunned by the West.
Indian media saw Thursday's visit by Representatives Aaron Schock, Cathy McMorris-Rodgers and Cynthia Lummis as a public relations coup for Modi, who has been trying to cultivate an image of a statesman. He quickly tweeted that the congressional delegation had lauded his leadership abilities.
It was the highest level U.S. delegation to meet Modi since the riots, an official in Modi's office said. The United States has maintained links with his administration at a consular level. U.S. companies such as Ford Motor Co. have major operations in Gujarat.
Schock, an Illinois congressman, told a news conference that American business leaders had encouraged him to visit Gujarat "because unlike other places in India our foreign investment is welcome".
"My colleagues and I were thoroughly impressed with our meeting with Modi and I will tell you that he is a very dynamic person and he has a pretty impressive track record here in the state of Gujarat.
"We extended an invitation to the chief minister to come to the United States and share with our colleagues some of what he's done here in the state."
McMorris-Rodgers, who is from Washington state and is the fourth-ranking Republican leader in the House of Representatives, said U.S. lawmakers would work with the Obama administration to ease the travel curbs on Modi.
The issue of human rights was not discussed during the 90-minute meeting, an official in Modi's office said.
There was no immediate comment from the State Department but Robert Blake, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, said in February that the United States was not reconsidering its policy towards Modi.
"Visa decisions for all individuals are grounded in U.S. law and made by the Department of State on a case-by-case basis," said a U.S. State Department spokeswoman. "An invitation from a U.S. lawmaker has no bearing on any decision regarding potential visas."
"This case is no different. There has been no change to our visa policy. Our longstanding policy with regard to the Chief Minister is that he is welcome to apply for a visa and await a review like any other applicant," she added. "I am not going to speculate about what the outcome might be."
The lawmakers' trip came week after a British foreign minister met Modi in Gujarat, the most high-profile visit by a British official since the country ended its boycott of Modi in October. Modi has also been invited to a session of the European Parliament, his website said.
Diplomats in New Delhi say that given Modi's rising star, it is important for foreign governments to get to know him better.
(Additional reporting by Annie Banerji, Matthias Williams and Satarupa Bhattacharjya in New Delhi and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie)