NEW DELHI (Reuters) – In a glow of bonhomie, U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi worked on a series of bilateral agreements at a summit on Sunday that both sides hope will establish an enduring strategic partnership.
Indian media reported that negotiators had broken an impasse that has long stood in the way of civil nuclear trade and was one of the major irritants in bilateral ties..
They ironed out differences over the liability of suppliers to India in the event of a nuclear accident and the United States dropped a demand to be able to track the whereabouts of material supplied to the country, TV news networks said.
The White House declined to comment on the reports and the spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs said only « we hope for a positive outcome at the end of the day ».
Signaling his determination to take ties to a higher level, Modi broke with protocol to meet and bear-hug Obama as he landed in New Delhi earlier in the day. It was a remarkable spectacle given that, just a year ago, Modi was persona non grata in Washington and denied a visa to the United States.
After a working lunch that included kebabs made with lotus stem, figs and spices, the two leaders got down to talks to finalize possible agreements on climate change, renewable energy, taxation and defense cooperation.
« Earlier we were close, now we are together, » Modi said after the two leaders had walked and talked together in an elegant garden and sat outside over tea. Modi, who sold tea on a railway platform as a child, poured a cup for Obama.
Obama will be the first U.S. president to attend India’s Republic Day parade, an annual 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 welcome at the presidential palace, where there was a guard of honor, a 21-gun salute and a stray dog running around the forecourt until it was chased away.
Modi greeted Obama and his wife, Michelle, 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, the prime minister does not greet foreign leaders on their arrival, but Modi made the decision himself to break with tradition, surprising even his own handlers.
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 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, 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.
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 India’s Mahatma Gandhi.
The « chemistry » aides describe is striking because Modi’s politics is 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.
The nuclear deal has so far 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.