Clinton's Popularity In India Tinged With Wariness

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits India, there are concerns that the Obama administration doesn't care enough about India and is preoccupied with U.S. interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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So what do Indians make of Hillary Clinton's visit. She was no stranger to that country. In her senate days, she was co-chair of the India Caucus and she's visited several times.

This time Secretary Clinton must deal with an array of tricky issues, as NPR's correspondent Philip Reeves reports.

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PHILIP REEVES: Hillary Clinton is being feted by dancing girls and draped with garlands of flowers, her photographs are filling India's newspapers and TV channels, her visits, a distraction from the steaming summer heat, the frequent power outages, and this year worryingly patchy monsoon. Dipankar Banerjee, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, says Clinton is personally popular in India.

Mr. DIPANKAR BANERJEE (Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies): She is a person of great charm, articulation. And she's got many very good followers in India. Indians had a very - always had a very high view of her.

PHILIP REEVES: Yet the welcome extended to Clinton in India is being tinged with a kind of wariness. Not so long ago, things were different.

Prime Minister MANMOHAN SINGH (India): I'm particularly pleased that we have reached an understanding on the implementation of our agreement on civil, nuclear cooperation.

REEVES: That's India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, during a visit to New Delhi by President Bush in early 2006. The two men triumphantly sealed a new, much-closer, strategic partnership. India was forgiven for building the bomb and refusing to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The mutual suspicions of the Cold War era were over. A rich, new friendship seemed to have become.

Since then, though, a certain uneasiness has crept in. India's been wondering if President Obama is as committed to this new partnership as Mr. Bush was. Rajiv Sikri, a former Indian senior diplomat, says the relationship's drifted.

Mr. RAJIV SIKRI (Former Senior Diplomat, India): Since November last year, which is now seven, eight months ago, there has been very little high-level contact, ever since Obama got elected. And this has understandably led to some break in the communications, the momentum and so forth.

REEVES: Clinton's visit is restoring that momentum. However, Sikri believes U.S.-India relations are now going to be different. He says in the Bush years, there was a convergence of interests.

Mr. SIKRI: Whereas now it becomes harder to keep up that pretense, because there is the Af-Pak Policy, there is the non-proliferation agenda, differences on climate change and WTO.

REEVES: One of those differences burst into the open yesterday. The U.S. wants India to agree to binding cuts in greenhouse gases ahead of a new, international climate treaty. Standing next to Clinton, India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, bluntly stated that India won't be doing so.

The U.S.' policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan keeps arising during Clinton's visit. After militants last year rampaged through Mumbai, India's commercial capital, killing more than 160 people, India suspended peace talks with Pakistan.

Many Indians believe the U.S. is now nudging their government towards resuming those talks without India getting enough in return. They want the Indian government to stick to its position, which is that Pakistan must first effectively crack down on militants committed to attacking India and particularly those behind the Mumbai assault.

This feeds into a larger complaint Indians often level against Washington, which is that the U.S. only really cares about its own interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, i.e., defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida. Siddharth Varadarajan, deputy editor of India's Hindu newspaper.

Mr. SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN (Deputy Editor, The Hindu): What the Indian side argues is that the U.S. needs to recognize that it is in its own interest that it be more persistent in getting the Pakistani military to end its links once and for all with every kind of Jihadi terrorist group. In other words, there is no Chinese wall separating an anti-American group from an anti-Indian group.

REEVES: Sikri, the former Indian diplomat, believes India should tell Clinton the U.S. generally must do more to take India's regional interests into account.

Mr. SIKRI: I think we need to give a very firm message on what are our red lines in this area, and this should be done very unequivocally, even brutally.

REEVES: This is, says Clinton, an exciting time for the U.S.' relations with India, but it's clearly not all easygoing. Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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