WASHINGTON, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- President Barack Obama's three-day visit to India next week is regarded as a potential breakthrough in the sometimes frosty relations between the two countries.
Obama will stay in one country for three days beginning Jan. 25, a rare occurrence in modern diplomacy, at the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two men became friends when the newly elected Modi visited Washington in September. After a formal meeting at the White House, Obama gave Modi an unplanned guided tour of Washington's Martin Luther King Jr. monument.
Modi, in turn, invited Obama to celebrate India's colorful Republic Day, Jan. 26, in New Delhi, an unprecedented honor that could be regarded as a diplomatic opening.
"It took us by some surprise," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser. "I think [Obama] sees this as a potentially transitional, if not transformational, moment for the relationship. There's a great affinity between the United States and India and our people, but there's also a history that is complicated."
Despite the goodwill, there are enduring divisions with India: the relatively close U.S. relations with rival Pakistan; a 2010 law forbidding construction of nuclear power plants by foreign firms in India; the fear that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan could encourage terrorists to enter India; and other issues of substance.
While the trip is likely to be more a show of friendship than a step forward in solving problems, it was unimaginable before the bond between Obama and Modi was observed, and both parties are ready to make the most of it.
"What does the president of the United States want? Does he want a best friend, or does he want somebody that's going to carry through on commitments? It's clearly the latter," Rick Rossow of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies told CNN.
Obama's schedule indicates he will be in public and in Modi's company for much of the trip. He will visit the Mahatma Ghandi memorial at Rajghat and the Taj Mahal in Agra, serve as chief guest at the Republic Day observance, take questions on a radio call-in program and attend an assortment of dinners, receptions and meetings with Indian business and political leaders. Beneath the showmanship will be the understanding Modi seeks U.S. capital, technology and capability for his country's population of 1.2 billion and its economy, the world's fast-growing. These elements would also serve as a hedge against Chinese influence in India. Modi seeks favorable relations with every country in Asia but India is aligned with none of them.
The high-profile visit by Obama is an indication of how quickly diplomacy can turn, especially when it is based on personal connection. India, neutral during the Cold War but reliant on the Soviet Union for military equipment, now buys much of its military supplies from the United States, and the antagonism between the two countries has melted as India seeks partners in its progress.
"Modi's a pragmatist," said Samir Saran, a former Reliance Industries executive. "He does not find it contradictory to woo China for investment while being close to the U.S."
In Japan in September, Modi criticized China's "18th century-style expansionist attitudes." Two weeks later, Chinese President Xi Jinping was welcomed in India as Modi sought Chinese investment from the United States, Japan and elsewhere. Russian President Vladimir Putin was also received warmly when he visited New Delhi last month, and India did not endorse Western sanctions against Russia for its involvement in Ukraine.
"For the prime minister, if India is to get out of being a developing country, there are things the Americans can help him with that no one else can," said Indrani Bagchi of the Times of India.