Obama looks to build toward policy breakthroughs with India

2015-01-25 10:05
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C), US President Barack Obama (L) and US First Lady Michelle Obama (R) wave as they pose for a photograph as the US president and his wife arrive at the start of an official visit in New Delhi. (AFP)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C), US President Barack Obama (L) and US First Lady Michelle Obama (R) wave as they pose for a photograph as the US president and his wife arrive at the start of an official visit in New Delhi. (AFP)

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New Delhi - President Barack Obama opened a three-day visit to India aimed at turning his personal chemistry with Prime Minister Narendra Modi into progress on the climate change, defence and economics.

Obama's arrival on Sunday morning in the bustling capital of New Delhi marked the first time an American leader has visited India twice in his presidency. Obama is also the first to be invited to attend India's Republic Day festivities, which commence on Monday and mark the anniversary of the country's democratic constitution being enacted.

Ahead of the celebrations, Obama was to meet with Modi and attend a state dinner at Rashtrapati Bhavan, India's presidential palace. He also planned to attend a wreath-laying and tree-planting ceremony at a memorial to Indian independence icon Mahatma Gandhi.

In a move likely to take some of the symbolic shine off Obama's trip, the White House announced shortly before his departure from Washington that the president was canceling plans to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Major policy breakthroughs

The president and first lady Michelle Obama had planned to tour the famed white marble monument of love on Tuesday, but instead the Obamas will go to Saudi Arabia to pay respects to the royal family following the death of King Abdullah.

"The president regrets that he will be unable to visit Agra during this trip," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

It appeared unlikely that Obama's visit would result in major policy breakthroughs on the issues that will dominate his agenda with Modi. But the mere fact that the talks were happening was being viewed as a sign of progress given the recent tensions that have marred relations between the US and India.

The relationship hit rock bottom in 2013 when Indian Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade was arrested and strip-searched in New York over allegations that she lied on visa forms to bring her maid to the US while paying her a pittance. Her treatment caused outrage in New Delhi and India retaliated against US diplomats.

Heavily polluted

Ties between the US and India have been steadily improving since Modi took office last May. He and Obama met for the first time late last year in Washington, and officials from both countries say they quickly developed an easy chemistry.

That came as something of a surprise to regional analysts given Modi's difficult history with the US He was denied a visa to the US in 2005, three years after religious riots killed more than 1 000 Muslims in the Indian state where he was the top elected official.

"I think Modi surprised everyone by, with very little hesitation, embracing the United States," said Milan Vaishnav, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "To give credit where credit is due, the Obama administration stepped in very quickly after his election to signal that he was willing to do business."

Obama also had a good rapport with former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. However, US officials expressed some frustration that their personal warmth never translated into policy breakthroughs.

High on Obama's agenda with Modi is progress on getting heavily polluted India to agree to curb carbon emissions. White House officials hope the surprise climate agreement the US struck with China in November might spur India to take similar steps, though that's unlikely to happen during Obama's visit.

Obama is also expected to push Modi to make changes to liability legislation in India that has prevented US companies from capitalizing on a landmark civil nuclear agreement between the two countries in 2008.

Read more on:    narendra modi  |  barack obama  |  india  |  us

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