New Delhi: US President Barack Obama held talks Sunday with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the start of a three-day India visit aimed at consolidating increasingly close ties between the world´s two largest democracies.
The two leaders sat down for a working lunch in central Delhi after sharing a bear hug at the airport where Modi, dressed in a bright saffron shawl, broke with protocol to greet the first couple on the tarmac.
Obama is the first serving US president to return to India for a second time, underscoring the growing importance of what he has called one of the “defining partnerships of the 21st century”.
Despite being persona non grata in Washington only a year ago, Modi personally invited Obama to become the first US president to be chief guest at India´s Republic Day parade on Monday.
The visit also caps a remarkable turnaround in relations between the two countries after a diplomatic row in late 2013 that saw the Stars and Stripes torched on the streets of Delhi.
The Indian premier has invited Obama to co-host a radio phone-in show and is reportedly planning a private dinner at his Delhi home for the president.
In an interview with the India Today magazine before his arrival, Obama recalled a vision he outlined for the two countries to become “global partners” when he last visited in 2010.
“I´d like to think that the stars are aligned to finally realise the vision I outlined,” he said.
Both sides want a counter-balance to China, with Modi seen as taking a more assertive line on India´s powerful neighbour than the previous government.
– Visit strong on symbolism –
Obama laid a wreath at a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, leader of India´s independence movement, after a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace that included a 21-gun salute and full guard of honour.
The US president, who arrived in his armoured limousine known as the “Beast” flanked by soldiers on horseback, said at the ceremony that it was “a great honour” to return to India and thanked his hosts for their “extraordinary hospitality”.
The couple had been scheduled to visit the Taj Mahal, India´s famed monument to love, but their trip has been cut short to allow Obama to travel on to Saudi Arabia and pay respects to new King Salman.
Obama´s trip comes just months after Modi´s first official visit to the United States, and with so little time to lay the groundwork it is expected to be stronger on symbolism than on content.
Nonetheless, a deal on intelligence-sharing is on the cards and a decade-old defence cooperation pact is expected to be upgraded.
Climate change — a priority for Obama — and Afghanistan are expected to be discussed, while the two leaders will make a joint address to company bosses on Monday.
Obama adviser Ben Rhodes said climate change and clean energy were a “concrete priority” and it would be impossible to achieve an international climate agreement without major emitters such as India on board.
Indian broadcaster NDTV said Modi and Obama would discuss a possible breakthrough on a stalled nuclear deal when they go for a walk on Sunday.
The two countries signed the landmark deal giving India access to civilian nuclear technology in 2008, but it has been held up by US concerns over India´s strict laws on liability.
India has offered to set up an insurance pool to indemnify companies that build reactors in the country against liability in case of a nuclear accident.
– ´Willing to do business´ –
Modi´s election in May 2014 was a potential headache for the US, which had blacklisted the Hindu nationalist for more than a decade after deadly communal riots in Gujarat when he was the state´s chief minister.
He was only brought in from the cold last February when the US ambassador travelled to Gujarat once it appeared Modi was likely to end the centre-left Congress party´s 10-year rule.
The transformation since has been spectacular, with both men heartened by their meeting of minds on a range of issues in Washington in September.
The Indian capital is expected to be under virtual lockdown for the January 26 celebrations.
Obama will watch the parade — a huge spectacle featuring everything from tanks to camels and tribal dancers — from behind a bullet-proof glass enclosure with Modi.