Obama hosts Indian PM, unlikely friend

U.S. President Barack Obama returns via the Marine One helicopter to the White House in Washington, U.S. June 2, 2016.
PHOTO: Reuters

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama welcomes India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House this week in a low-key nod to the improved ties between the world's biggest democracies.

That the pair would get along was not a given: When Obama came to office in 2009, the Hindu nationalist was banned from entering the United States over his role in anti-Muslim riots.

But the ban was lifted after Modi was sworn into office in May 2014 and he has since made four US visits - two to Washington - while Obama has twice travelled to India.

Relations between the countries are not always easy - India insists on staying out of formal alliances and forging its own course - but both leaders can boast that ties have improved.

For Obama, who will step down from office in January, this is now a matter of his legacy - friendship with India and inroads into its huge market are a victory for his so-called "pivot to Asia." For Modi, Tuesday's visit is a time to set the seal on what has been achieved and set the stage for what he hopes will be a mushrooming in US-India trade from $120 billion (S$163 billion) to $500 billion.

Ahead of the trip, India's Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar told reporters Obama had invited Modi as one of the leaders with whom "he had a close and productive working relationship." "So, in many ways you can say it is sort of a consolidation visit," he added.

On Monday, Modi will head to Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony and meet with think tank scholars.

He will have a working lunch with Obama on Tuesday, followed by a series of meetings with US business leaders and members of the three million strong Indian-American community.

On Wednesday, he will become the fifth Indian premier to address a joint session of the US Congress, and afterwards will be hosted at a reception for dignitaries and lawmakers.

Officials played down the chances of major announcements during the visit, but noted that India is very close to a deal with US electric giant Westinghouse to build a nuclear plant.

"There is a very detailed and advanced negotiation," Arun Singh, India's ambassador to the United States, told reporters, adding that only the financing details of the scheme remain to be agreed.

The multi-billion dollar deal to provide power to India's growing, energy-hungry populace had been on hold because of concerns about site safety in Modi's home state Gujarat.

But a new location for the six-reactor plant has been found in Andhra Pradesh and concerns about insurance have been ironed out, Singh said.

Another potential arena for greater co-operation is in the military and security arena.

India has made the United States its main arms supplier - spending $14 billion over the past five years - but also spends heavily with French, Israeli and Russian suppliers.

The two countries are negotiating a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), although it is not clear whether a final draft will be ready for Modi to sign on his visit.

This arrangement, long-sought by Washington, will allow the two militaries to seek supplies and spare parts from each other's bases.

Singh did not say whether agreement was imminent - India also wants deals to acquire advanced US arms technology - but noted that Indian and US troops now train together regularly.

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