(Reuters) - President Barack Obama nominated former State Department official Richard Verma as U.S. ambassador to India on Thursday, just ahead of a visit to Washington by new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a White House statement said.
Verma, an Indian-American, served as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs at the State Department in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011.
He is currently a senior counselor at Steptoe & Johnson law firm and the Albright Stonebridge Group, a business advisory company, led by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
White House officials said Verma has close relationships with Obama's White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and senior adviser John Podesta. He will be the first Indian-American to do the job.
If he is confirmed by Congress, Verma will replace Nancy Powell, who resigned in March after a damaging row over the treatment of a junior Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, who was accused by authorities in New York of visa fraud and underpaying a domestic worker.
Khobragade was arrested and strip-searched in New York last year, an incident that took the U.S.-India relationship to its lowest ebb in a decade.
The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi is currently headed by a charge d' Affairs, Kathleen Stephens.
Modi is due to visit Washington Sept. 29-30 for a trip aimed at revitalizing ties and clearing the air. Modi was denied a visa to the United States in 2005 after Hindu mobs killed more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, in 2002 while he was chief minister of his home state of Gujarat.
The United States sees India as a natural ally on a range of issues and a potential counterbalance to an increasingly assertive China in Asia and is keen to expand relations across the board, particularly in the security sphere.
In 2010, Obama declared the U.S.-India relationship would be "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century," but ties have so far failed to live up fully to this billing.
Some analysts have questioned whether an Indian-American would be the best choice as ambassador, given ambivalence among some in India about the diaspora in the United States.
They have also said it was important for the United States to pick "a heavy-hitter" close to Obama to show it considered India a real strategic partner.
Verma's association with Obama goes back to 2008, when he worked on presidential debate preparations for the then-Illinois senator. Verma's parents came to the United States in the early 1960s having lived through India's fight for independence from Britain and partition, White House officials said.
With U.S. lawmakers about to leave town to spend the next six weeks campaigning for the Nov. 4 congressional elections, Verma will not be confirmed by the Senate before mid-November.
The Obama administration has been fighting with the Senate all year to get its nominees confirmed more quickly. There are currently dozens of nominees for ambassadorships awaiting confirmation by the U.S. Senate.