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Bush holds out open slate

Chicago, April 14: The Bush administration will attempt to fundamentally transform relations with India in the next four years of its second term.

This became clear after a half-hour meeting in the Oval Office today between President George W. Bush and a visiting three-member delegation from India made up of external affairs minister Natwar Singh, Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia and foreign secretary Shyam Saran. Also present was Ronen Sen, India's ambassador to the US.

What emerged from the meeting based on accounts by Bush administration officials and a briefing for Indian correspondents by Saran was that India could get anything reasonable it asked for from the Americans at this juncture.

Bush was effusive in his praise for India, Indo-US relations, India's potential as a 'global power' and spoke expectantly about a visit he plans to make to India, at the end of 2005 or early next year.

It was clear Bush would like to compensate India for his decision last month to supply F-16 planes to Pakistan.

But the problem is that India has hardly asked for anything. The BJP-led government sought normalisation of relations after the 1998 nuclear tests and then asked for a strategic partnership.

The US complied with both requests: the latter has been institutionalised into the 'Next Steps in Strategic Partnership'. In November last year, during a visit to Washington, the foreign secretary sought US help in the controversial area of nuclear energy, camouflaging it as an 'energy dialogue'.

Today, Bush told the Indian delegation in so many words that his administration was willing to co-operate with New Delhi in the critical area of energy, including nuclear power.

According to Indian sources, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took the unusual step of asking Ahluwalia and Saran to go along with the external affairs minister so that he could have concrete and all-round ideas from this week's meetings in the White House, the state department and on Capitol Hill on how India could respond to the US desire to dramatically transform relations.

Singh would like a roadmap for collaborating with the Americans towards this objective when he visits Washington in a few months.

That effort has begun well. The Indian team opened its visit to Washington yesterday by meeting the new national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, so that its members could gauge in advance where they stood with the President.

The meeting with Bush today has been a good augury for the delegation because it has sent across the US establishment a strong message that the President is committed to expanding ties with India. That message will have a ripple effect in the administration.

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