Protesters await Bush on historic South Asia tour

President tries to seal deal on nuclear treaty

Indian protesters rally against President George W. Bush in New Delhi. After a surprise stop in Afghanistan, Bush arrived Wednesday in India to begin a tour of South Asia.

? President Bush, seeking to warm relations with the world’s largest democracy, effusively praised his Indian hosts Thursday amid last-minute haggling in search of a nuclear deal with New Delhi.

“I have been received in many capitals around the world but I have never seen a reception as well-organized or as grand,” Bush said after a colorful arrival ceremony in a sun-drenched plaza at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the president’s palace. “It’s an honor to be here.”

From under a red canopy outside the massive sandstone-colored building, the U.S. president was treated to the playing of the American national anthem and reviewed troops of the Indian armed services outfitted in striking dress uniforms and about a dozen members of a cavalry unit on horseback.

Bush and his wife, Laura, then visited a memorial to India’s independence leader, M.K. Gandhi, standing in stocking feet for a moment of silence and wreath-laying at the site where he was cremated in 1948. Following tradition, the Bushes tossed flower petals on the cremation platform – repeating the gesture several times to make sure photographers could get the shot.

It was the start of a more than 12-hour day of events and meetings for the first full day of Bush’s first visit to India. The centerpiece were crucial talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Bush arrived after sundown Wednesday at an Indian air force station in Palam, outside New Delhi. He is the fifth U.S. president to visit India, which is home to more than 1 billion people and has the world’s second-largest Muslim population.

Mixed reactions

The frantic negotiations for the nuclear pact, coupled with protests planned throughout Bush’s stay, reflected India’s mixed feelings about the visit by the leader of the United States – a country seen both as a loyal friend and a global bully.

The mood in New Delhi was much changed from 1959 when President Eisenhower became the first U.S. president to visit the nation. Then, an estimated 1 million joyous Indians threw rose petals at Eisenhower as he rode in an open limousine along a route where a sign heralded him as “Prince of Peace.”

The headline Wednesday in the English-language Times of India, which depicted Bush wearing a cowboy hat and wielding a lasso, read: “India-US Ties Set To Soar As Eagle Lands.”

But not all Indians were happy to see him.

At Wednesday’s protest in central New Delhi, tens of thousands of people, many of them Muslim, chanted “Death to Bush!” and waved placards reading, “Bully Bush, Go Home.” Muslims in India’s part of Kashmir also protested the Bush visit.

“The people of India have a categoric message for George Bush: Go home!” V.P. Singh, a former prime minister of India, said to roars of approval from the crowd.

Bush’s approval ratings in India, however, are better than at home, where his second-term agenda has yet to gain traction.

In recent weeks, the Bush administration has endured backlashes over warrantless wiretapping of Americans with suspected ties to terrorists, a bumpy rollout of the new Medicare prescription drug program, Vice President Dick Cheney’s hunting accident, growing civil strife in Iraq and a Republican revolt over the administration’s agreement to hand over management of parts of six U.S. ports to a Dubai-owned company based in the United Arab Emirates.

Bush’s job approval currently rating hovers around 40 percent. In contrast, recent international polling has found that people in India generally have a positive view of the United States. A Pew Research Center poll taken in mostly urban areas of India in May 2005 found that seven in 10 held a favorable view of the United States.

Nuclear disagreement

Bush wants to share U.S. nuclear know-how and fuel with India to help power its fast-growing economy, even though India won’t sign the international nonproliferation treaty.

Some lawmakers in Washington contend that the Bush administration is making a side deal to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Critics in India are wary that the United States is meddling in Indian affairs, and is using India as a counterweight to China’s growing economic and political influence.

Despite telephone diplomacy from Air Force One as it flew to South Asia, disagreements remain. If reached, the landmark accord would represent a major shift in policy for the United States, which imposed temporary sanctions on India in 1998 after it conducted nuclear tests.

“We’ll continue to dialogue and work, and hopefully we can reach an agreement,” Bush said. “If not, we’ll continue to work on it until we do.”

In a surprise detour to Afghanistan on his way to India, Bush downplayed the significance of getting the deal completed during his visit. The success of his trip, however, will be judged on whether the two sides can agree on how to split India’s nuclear weapons work from its peaceful nuclear program, and place the later under international inspection.

“The one thing that is absolutely necessary is that any agreement would assure that once India has decided to put a reactor under safeguard that it remain permanently under safeguard,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters on the plane.

Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran has stressed the need for clarity, saying, “We need to make sure there are no ambiguities which may create difficulties for us in the future.”

Bush spoke in Kabul, standing alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose fragile government is facing a resurgence of violence from al-Qaida and repressive Taliban militants. Bush said he thinks Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, will one day be captured.

“I am confident he will be brought to justice,” Bush said.