FORTUNE – As India’s national election reaches the finish line, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, appears the front-runner. Should the BJP win, Modi, a once-highly polarizing figure, on whose watch Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 claimed about 1000 lives in the Western state of Gujarat, will almost certainly become prime minister of one of the world’s biggest economies.
Modi’s past presents challenges for the United States. Many worry that the denial of a visa to him in 2005 over questions about his responsibility for the riots will derail U.S.-India relations under a Modi dispensation. Due to changed legal circumstances, the visa issue will likely recede— the U.S. denies entry to few, if any, heads of government. And America’s relationship overall with India has too many components, and there’s too much in the future at stake for both countries to get locked up in the past for concerns about the past to eclipse the future.
Final results of India’s elections are expected Friday.Should the Indian electorate send Modi’s election could certainly mark a new chapter for India. From a U.S. perspective, concerns about the health of Indian secularism will not simply disappear, but they should not derail America’s relationship with the country. the entire U.S.-India relationship. If Modi keeps his word and focuses on the economy, and if Washington seizes the opportunity, the United States and India will find a way to continue partnering productively.
But to keep things on track with one of Washington’s most important partners in Asia the U.S. ought to focus on Modi’s top campaign issue: trade and economics. After all, India is the world’s largest democracy, and on track to become the third largest economy in the world by 2025, and a rising power.
This is not to suggest that Modi’s past doesn’t matter at all. It will undoubtedly discomfit some Americans, making it harder to herald shared values of democratic pluralism and diversity as the ideational core of the U.S.-India bond. Some have also speculated on the other side that Modi may resent the United States for the visa denial, leading to a chilling of bilateral ties. But this only strengthens the argument to place economics and business at the heart of U.S.-India relations.
On the narrow question of the visa, a recent Congressional Research Service study noted that a head of government would be eligible for a special diplomatic visa, a situation different from 2005. In addition, Modi’s legal situation in India has changed. The slow wheels of the Indian judicial system have creaked forward over time, convicting many responsible for the 2002 violence, including a member of Modi’s own cabinet. But a Supreme Court-commissioned special investigative team found insufficient evidence to bring charges against him, and late last year, a lower court upheld the investigation. As for whether he would resent the U.S., Modi himself has recently stated that a country’s “relations are not determined…by what happened with an individual.”
Of course, looking beyond the visa issue, some Americans remain concerned about what a Modi government would mean for India’s diverse, multi-religious, pluralistic society. He has never formally apologized for the riots, and what also worries many is his longstanding ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization. Anti-Muslim statements from some of his supporters—including a recent diatribe by a right-wing fringe leader on preventing Muslims from property ownership in Hindu areas—have been alarming. Thankfully, Modi has publicly disavowed such comments, but he will have to continue to keep this wing of his supporters in check.
At the same time, Modi presents a message of growth, governance and economic opportunity as his central appeal over his opponents. He has refocused the BJP party platform to make India “globally competitive,” reclaim India’s role as a global trading power and develop a “Brand India built on quality.” The platform endorses foreign direct investment wherever needed, and emphasizes innovation and intellectual property rights. Pew Research found that he appeals to voters on economics and fighting corruption, besting Congress by a spread of nearly forty points. He will be accountable to Indian voters to deliver on this campaign promise.
That offers an opportunity for the U.S. to shore up a central part of the relationship that has frayed over the last two years. An Indian government more focused on trade and investment would provide a welcome opening, and U.S. corporations are eager to get back to business. Washington can respond with convening long-delayed trade meetings, and championing Indian interest in deeper economic partnership throughout Asia, including a path to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and inclusion in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum.
Collaborating with India once again on trade and investment will help remove the rancor that has spread in recent months.
Alyssa Ayres is senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. She was deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia during 2010-2013. Follow her @AyresAlyssa