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Modi makes White House debut

01 october 2014, 10:44

 India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived at the White House Tuesday, on the latest stop in his headline-grabbing debut tour of the world stage after his Hindu nationalist party's crushing election win, AFP reports.

President Barack Obama welcomed Modi to Oval Office talks which both sides hope will overcome niggling differences and revive a partnership which both see as vital, but that has been under strain in recent years.

The US leader was expected to press Modi on the implementation of a stalled World Trade Organization commerce pact and to consult with him on the campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq and on other key issues, including global warming and geopolitics in Asia.

Modi actually made his debut at the White House on Monday night, when he attended a private dinner hosted by Obama at the ornate Blue Room of the presidential residence.

White House chefs served up crisp halibut in ginger carrot sauce, though Modi had given advance notice he would not eat as he is in the middle of an annual religious fast.

  Color Guard 

On Tuesday, Modi re-staged his arrival for the cameras, driving in a black sports utility vehicle with US and Indian flags flying from the fenders, up to the West Wing of the White House through a US military color guard.

Obama and Modi were expected to give statements to the press after an hour-and-a-half of talks.

In an op-ed article in the Washington Post, Modi and Obama lauded the partnership between the world's oldest democracy and its largest one, but said there was much more to come.

"The true potential of our relationship has yet to be fully realized," they wrote.

"The advent of a new government in India is a natural opportunity to broaden and deepen our relationship."

Modi warmed up for the White House visit by basking in a rock star welcome in New York, speaking to thousands of members of the Indian diaspora at the Madison Square Garden sports arena and addressing the United Nations.

Indian American activists have pressed for years to rehabilitate the image of Modi, who was denied a visa to the United States in 2005 on human rights grounds over anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat.

Modi denies wrongdoing and was never charged over the violence that killed more than 1,000 people.

Since he took office, Washington has made strenuous efforts to court the new Indian leader -- sending several cabinet level delegations to New Delhi and pushing for an early visit to the United States by the new premier.

US officials see India as a fulcrum of Obama's policy of rebalancing US foreign policy towards Asia, and a potential counter to the other rising regional giant, China.

Modi has already visited Japan since taking office after his Bharatiya Janata Party's landslide election win in May and has welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to New Delhi.

US officials have welcomed Modi's vows to slash red tape confining India's economy and his overtures to business leaders who have long chafed at restrictions on foreign investment in the country.

But Washington is concerned about New Delhi's recent move to block a key WTO pact that would streamline customs procedures and boost global commerce.

Modi said Monday he was in favor of unfettered trade -- but said commerce must enhance India's capacity to feed its most impoverished citizens and to protect its emerging middle class.

He said that despite some differences with Washington, the wider relationship could still improve.

"It is not necessary we should have comfort in everything, even between a husband and wife, there is never 100 percent comfort," Modi joked at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said the two sides would also discuss the future of Afghanistan and the global fight against militant groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

Modi issued a public warning to the United States Monday not to repeat its "mistake" in Iraq by pulling out of Afghanistan too soon.

"Because after such a rapid withdrawal in Iraq, (and) what happened there, the withdrawal process in Afghanistan should be very slow," he said.

Both sides are eager to repair the damage inflicted by a recent series of spats, including a crisis last December when US authorities arrested and then strip-searched an Indian diplomat in New York for allegedly mistreating her housekeeper.

US officials have insisted that a lawsuit leveled against Modi by a human rights group in New York over the Gujarat massacre will not detract from the visit. As a foreign head of government, Modi enjoys diplomatic immunity.

by Stephen COLLINSON

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