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With ambassador out, Obama administration trying to fix rift with India?

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FILE - In this July 10, 2012 file photograph, U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell speaks at an event, in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal, File)

The Obama administration may be moving to mend fences with India -- as well as with the front-runner in the country's looming elections -- on the heels of last year's diplomatic flare-up that resulted in a bizarre tit-for-tat between the two supposed allies.

In the latest sign the U.S. government is angling for a fresh start, the sitting ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, announced her resignation on Monday and said she would soon retire to her home in Delaware. The State Department insisted the resignation was long-planned and any suggestion to the contrary was "totally false" -- but the timing stirred unavoidable speculation.

Powell's departure comes after Washington and New Delhi clashed last year over the arrest in New York of an Indian diplomat on visa charges. She has since been allowed to return home despite a new indictment in the U.S., but the incident touched off an international fracas.

India media reports suggested, before Powell's announcement, that she was being nudged out, as part of an effort to repair damaged relations.

Reuters also reported that one official close to sitting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had described her as a "lemon."

Even if Powell's decision was entirely her own, some now see her departure as a chance for the administration to send a high-profile envoy to India -- someone at the level of former Montana Sen. Max Baucus, or ex-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the current and former ambassadors to China, respectively.

"This is an opportunity to really show to the Indians that this relationship matters a lot," said Sanjay Puri, with the U.S. India Political Action Committee, calling it an opening to "reset the relationship."

But, with national elections in India getting underway next week, the Obama administration already had been taking a series of conciliatory steps, particularly toward the front-runner to be India's next prime minister, Narendra Modi.

Ties between Modi, a controversial but powerful Indian politician, and the U.S. had been in a freeze for years. He was denied a U.S. visa in 2005 over deadly riots in his state.

But with Modi rising in prominence, and in the polls, some were calling on the State Department to lift the ban -- even if it risked angering human rights groups. In February, the U.S. effectively ended its boycott of Modi when Powell met with the Gujarat chief minister in his home state.

As for whether Modi would be granted a visa to the U.S., Nisha Desai Biswal, assistant U.S. secretary for south and central Asian affairs, told an Indian media outlet last month that the next prime minister of India would be welcome in the U.S.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, asked about Modi's status earlier this week, would not comment.

But a Congressional Research Service report released last month claimed that if Modi were to become prime minister of India, he'd be "automatically eligible" for an A-1 diplomatic visa as head of state -- the report indicated other restrictions would probably not apply to such a visa, unless the U.S. president intervened.

The trouble over 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. This triggered 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, 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."

Though some U.S. lawmakers still are trying to blacklist Modi, it may be difficult if he wins the elections -- which last into May.

Harf, asked at Monday's press briefing about U.S.-India relations and Powell's departure, said the relationship is an "incredibly key partnership that will continue under our team there and under whoever is named the next ambassador."

She repeatedly said Powell, retiring after 37 years of service, had been planning to leave anyway.

"It is in no way related to any tension, any recent situations. There's no big behind-the-scenes story here," she said.

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