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Man poised to lead India barred from entering US

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Dec. 1, 2013: India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi addresses supporters during a rally in Jammu, India. (AP)

The man poised to lead India -- one of America's staunchest allies in Asia and a nation of more than a billion people -- cannot even legally enter the United States. 

In what has triggered a quiet battle on Capitol Hill, advocacy groups and lawmakers are drawing attention to the case of India's Narendra Modi. Though the powerful politician is the front-runner in India's elections next year, he was denied a U.S. visa in 2005 over deadly riots in his state. 

This leaves the State Department with a difficult choice -- lift the ban and anger human rights groups while triggering a potential legal battle, or keep the ban and cause a rift with India, one of the United States' closest allies. 

"It cannot be possible that you do not give visa to the prime minister of a country," one of Modi's party colleagues, Shatrughan Sinha, was recently quoted as saying

The trouble with Modi dates back to 2002. Shortly after he was appointed chief minister of the state of Gujarat, a group of Muslims attacked a train carrying Hindus, setting it on fire and killing dozens of people. What resulted were some of the deadliest ethnic riots in India's history. Hindu mobs attacked Muslims throughout the state, and by most estimates more than 1,000 people were killed. 

In a controversy that has trailed his political career, Modi was accused by human rights groups of doing little to quell the violence. When he sought to travel to the United States in 2005, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers penned a resolution condemning him for "condoning or inciting bigotry." 

Shortly afterward, the State Department denied him a visa, on the grounds of a section of U.S. law barring any foreign official deemed responsible for "severe violations of religious freedom." 

Fast forward to today. Modi's party, BJP, just pulled off huge victories in key state elections and is seen as the front-runner for next year's elections -- making Modi, who has cultivated a reputation as a pro-business dynamo, the front-runner to be the next prime minister. 

The State Department is staying rather mum on its next move, though its assessment in April 2012 did not bode well for Modi. 

Asked by a reporter about Modi's visa status, then-spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: "I think you know that our position on the visa issue hasn't changed at all." She predicted a position "along familiar lines." 

Spokeswoman Marie Harf, asked again about Modi this past September, said "there's no change in our longstanding visa policy." 

"He is welcome to apply for a visa and await a review like any other applicant. That review will be, of course, grounded in U.S. law," she said. 

The last time around, U.S. law deemed Modi persona non grata. But it undoubtedly would be difficult for the State Department to make the same call if Modi becomes prime minister. 

India has been central to President Obama's "pivot" to Asia. 

The president, in a move that made major headlines abroad, in 2010 endorsed India's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Obama's first State Dinner, in 2009, was for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. 

There could be no such honor for Modi if he can't win approval to enter Washington. 

But many human rights activists and scholars still want to see Modi barred, and feel he has wrongly escaped punishment or blame for the 2002 riots. 

"I think that he should be sanctioned," Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom with the Hudson Institute, told FoxNews.com. 

Shea said that, for those urging the ban stay in place, the "critical period" is before next year's election. "To lift the ban would almost be a kind of endorsement that he is an internationally respected leader," she said. 

Foreign Policy reported that anti-Modi groups are preparing a legal challenge if Modi travels to the U.S. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress also has rallied to draw attention to Modi ahead of the elections. A House resolution sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., "commends" the U.S. government for denying Modi a visa in 2005, and urges it to use the "same standard" going forward. 

But various pro-Modi groups, and some lawmakers, have spoken out against that measure. The U.S. India Political Action Committee recently charged it was meant to "influence" the Indian election and released a statement from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., saying the resolution "runs counter to all the hard work that the American people, particularly those in the Indian American community, have done to improve the [U.S.-India] relationship." 

Shea said she believes the hardliner nationalist strain within Modi's party has become "very pronounced" and their rise could lead to greater conflict. However, she predicted that in the end, if Modi becomes prime minister, the visa ban "would probably come off."