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Obama's India Visit Arrives At A Moment Of Optimism


President Obama arrives in New Delhi tomorrow. He's expected to discuss a broad range of issues, including national security and climate change with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The president is cutting his trip short to fly to Saudi Arabia. He will also pay his respects to the family of King Abdullah, who, of course, died this week, but first, President Obama will be the guest of honor at India's Republic Day parade. He is the first U.S. president to be invited to that event. And NPR's Julie McCarthy tells us that his visit can note a new hope for the relationship between India and the U.S.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: This was after years of drift. There is this new energy, this new vigor in this relationship, and there's also enormous excitement, Scott, over the president and the first lady returning to India. The president has this coveted seat at this dazzling display of Indian military hardware during Monday's Republic Day parade, which is actually meant to commemorate the Constitution. And he'll see in a flyover this huge U.S.-made Super Hercules lifter, a testament to the close defense ties between India and the U.S.

SIMON: And is the president arriving at a time of enthusiasm in India?

MCCARTHY: Oh, he certainly is. They're here at a very heavy time. The stock market is on this bull run. It's hitting record highs. The IMF predicts that India's growth will actually outpace China's by 2016. So there's this energy here and there's this hope for improving the lives of 1.2 billion people, but that requires a lot of change. And that's what the president won't necessarily see - the 300 million Indians who don't have electricity, the 600 million who don't have access to clean toilets.

SIMON: Speaking of energy, should we expect anything concrete out of these meetings?

MCCARTHY: Well, the U.S. wants to make some headway on renewable energy. And that could bring light to millions of these households that are now in darkness. It wants progress on climate change. India produces 5 percent of the world's carbon emissions and if it follows the same model of development as China, it could be disastrous for India and the region in terms of pollution. But the bottom line here really is that there's no big, new idea in the offing for U.S.-India relations. Rather, what's evolving here is an all-encompassing look at the region and their strategic ties from Afghanistan to China. Narendra Modi says India will look West, but act East, and that's a comfortable fit for the United States. That's also in the midst of its own pivot to Asia. China's flexing its muscle in the South China Sea. It's made inroads with India's neighbors, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. So expect India and the U.S. to renew a defense pact that includes joint military exercises. One analyst sees all of this defense cooperation as a subtle move to jointly contain China's growing militarism, especially in this strategic Indian Ocean region.

SIMON: The president and the prime minister seem to have struck up a real personal connection, despite the fact that Mr. Modi was banned from entering the U.S. for 10 years. And this was over his handling of religious riots in Gujarat, where he was the chief minister. How was that resolved?

MCCARTHY: Well, when Modi won election last year, the U.S. decided not to look back. No court ever indicted Modi and the U.S. set this whole question of anti-Muslim riots and his alleged involvement aside. And rather than holding a grudge over the visa flap, Modi embraced the United States. He made it a priority, so that's how they got over it. Besides, the U.S, is not about to abandon Pakistan, and it has to make good with India - Pakistan's nuclear rival. It's a balance. And that said, there's a chemistry between President Obama and Mr. Modi. Obama was warm and informal with Modi when he came to Washington, taking him on an impromptu tour of the Martin Luther King Memorial. And expect to hear about nonviolence and tolerance from the president, who speaks at a town hall meeting here. So part of Obama's legacy is being written here, Scott. India offers the chance to broaden that legacy.

SIMON: NPR's Julie McCarthy in New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.