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Bear hug with Modi gets Obama’s India trip off to surprising start

Reuters, AFP-JIJI

Signaling his determination to take relations with the United States to a higher level, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke with protocol to meet and bear-hug U.S. President Barack Obama after he landed in New Delhi on Sunday.

Obama’s visit is a fresh bid to make India an enduring strategic partner and will nurture his friendship with a prime minister who a year ago was persona non grata in the U.S.

Even before the first official meeting between the two leaders, Indian media reported that negotiators had struck a deal on civilian nuclear trade. The NDTV news channel said the two sides had ironed out differences on the liability of suppliers in the event of an nuclear accident and on tracking of material supplied.

The White House declined to comment on the reports and a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs said only that “we hope for a positive outcome at the end of the day.”

Obama will become the first U.S. president to attend India’s Republic Day parade, a show of military might long associated with the anti-Americanism of the Cold War, and will host a radio show with Modi. His presence at Monday’s parade at Modi’s personal invitation is the latest revival in a roller-coaster relationship between the two largest democracies that just a year ago was in tatters.

“It’s a great honor. We are grateful for this extraordinary hospitality,” Obama said during a formal welcome at the presidential palace, where there was a guard of honor, a 21-gun salute and a stray dog running around until it was chased away.

Modi greeted the president and first lady, Michelle Obama, on the tarmac of the airport as they came down the steps from Air Force One on a smoggy winter morning. The two leaders hugged each other warmly.

According to protocol, India’s prime minister does not greet foreign leaders upon their arrival, meeting them instead at the presidential palace. Modi made the decision himself to break with tradition and surprised even his own handlers, media reports said.

After his welcome at the palace, Obama laid a wreath at Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mohandas Gandhi, who is revered as the father of independent India.

The roads of New Delhi were lined with armed police and soldiers, part of a highly choreographed plan for the visit. Up to 40,000 security personnel have been deployed for the visit and 15,000 new closed-circuit surveillance cameras have been installed in the capital, according to media reports.

The two sides have worked to reach agreements on climate change, taxation and defense cooperation in time for the visit.

The United States views India as a vast market and potential counterweight to China’s assertiveness in Asia, but frequently grows frustrated with the slow pace of economic reforms and unwillingness to side with Washington in international affairs. India would like to see a new U.S. approach to Pakistan, New Delhi’s arch-foe.

Elected last May, Modi has injected a new vitality into the economy and foreign relations and, to Washington’s delight, has begun pushing back against China’s growing presence in South Asia. Annual bilateral trade of $100 billion is seen as vastly below potential and Washington wants it to grow fivefold.

The White House said Obama will depart slightly early from India to travel to Saudi Arabia following the death of King Abdullah, instead of a planned visit to the Taj Mahal.

Like Obama, Modi rose from a modest home to break into a political elite dominated by powerful families. Aides say the two men bonded in Washington in September when Obama took Modi to the memorial of Martin Luther King, whose rights struggle was inspired by Gandhi.

The “chemistry” aides describe is striking because Modi’s politics are considerably to the right of Obama’s, and because he was banned from visiting the United States for nearly a decade after deadly Hindu-Muslim riots in a state he governed.

Obama, the first sitting U.S. president to visit India twice, also enjoyed a close friendship with Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, who in 2008 staked his premiership on a controversial deal that made India the sixth “legitimate” atomic power and marked a high point in Indo-U.S. relations. But the nuclear deal failed to deliver on a promise of billions of dollars of business for U.S. companies because of India’s reluctance to pass legislation shielding suppliers from liability, a deviation from international norms.

In a reminder that personal chemistry is not always enough, ties between Washington and India descended into bickering over protectionism that culminated in a fiery diplomatic spat in 2013 and the abrupt departure of the U.S. ambassador from New Delhi, who has only just been replaced.