NEW DELHI — President Barack Obama was welcomed like royalty Sunday in India as he opened a three-day visit aimed at turning his burgeoning rapport with Prime Minister Narendra Modi into progress on climate change, defense and economic issues.
Obama’s morning arrival in the bustling capital of New Delhi marked the first time an American leader has visited India twice during his presidency. Obama is also the first to be invited to attend India’s Republic Day festivities, which commence Monday and mark the anniversary of the enactment of the country’s democratic constitution.
Modi, wearing a gold kurta, was at the airport to greet Obama at the foot of Air Force One and he enveloped Obama in a huge embrace. Obama returned the gesture, patting the prime minister on the back several times.
Obama’s limousine later was escorted through a metal gate and into the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, India’s presidential palace, by a cavalry regiment of the Indian army. He was welcomed with a booming 21-gun salute and inspected an honor guard.
“It’s a great honor,” Obama said when reporters asked for his thoughts on attending Republic Day. “We are so grateful for the extraordinary hospitality.”
Ahead of the big day of celebration, Obama walked in his socks into a walled courtyard to lay a large white wreath at the site where Indian independence icon Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. He then shoveled dirt and poured a pitcher of water around a young tree planted in his honor at the memorial.
But in a move likely to take some of the symbolic shine off of Obama’s trip, the White House announced shortly before he departed Washington that the president had canceled plans to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra. The president and first lady had planned to tour the famed white marble monument of love on Tuesday, but instead will go to Saudi Arabia to pay respects to the royal family following the death of King Abdullah.
“The president regrets that he will be unable to visit Agra during this trip,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
It appeared unlikely that Obama’s visit would result in major policy breakthroughs on the issues that will dominate his agenda with Modi. But the mere fact that the talks were happening was being viewed as a sign of progress given the recent tensions that have marred relations between the U.S. and India.
The relationship hit rock bottom in 2013 when Indian Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade was arrested and strip-searched in New York over allegations that she lied on visa forms to bring her maid to the U.S. while paying her a pittance. Her treatment caused outrage in New Delhi and India retaliated against U.S. diplomats.
Ties between the U.S. and India have been steadily improving since Modi took office last May. He and Obama met for the first time late last year in Washington, and officials from both countries say they quickly developed an easy chemistry.
That came as something of a surprise to regional analysts given Modi’s difficult history with the U.S. He was denied a visa to the U.S. in 2005, three years after religious riots killed more than 1,000 Muslims in the Indian state where he was the top elected official.
“I think Modi surprised everyone by, with very little hesitation, embracing the United States,” said Milan Vaishnav, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “To give credit where credit is due, the Obama administration stepped in very quickly after his election to signal that he was willing to do business.”
Obama also had a good rapport with former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. However, U.S. officials expressed some frustration that their personal warmth never translated into policy breakthroughs.
High on Obama’s agenda with Modi is progress on getting heavily polluted India to agree to curb carbon emissions. White House officials hope the surprise climate agreement the U.S. struck with China in November might spur India to take similar steps, though that’s unlikely to happen during Obama’s visit.
Obama is also expected to push Modi to make changes to liability legislation in India that has prevented U.S. companies from capitalizing on a landmark civil nuclear agreement between the two countries in 2008.