United States President Barack Obama landed in New Delhi on an overcast Sunday morning around 9:40am to begin his three-day visit to India, highlighting the remarkable turnaround in relations between the two countries from a low point a year ago.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi received him at Palam airport with a handshake and a warm hug. He was accompanied by US ambassador Richard Verma.
"This is a momentous visit. It is high both in terms of symbolism and substance," foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said.
He added there was a "reflection of change" in the India-US ties, and the two countries were working to "re-energise this relation".
Obama, the first US President to be in India twice while in office, is visiting India on the invitation of Modi, who was until last year denied a visa to visit the US. Obama will also be the first US president present at Republic Day parade as a chief guest.
New Delhi has turned into a virtual fortress for the high-profile visit, with heightened security measures including an extended no-fly zone, to protect the world's most powerful leader. While on-the-ground security has been beefed up with extra police patrols and checks at Delhi Metro stations, snipers have been deployed at more than 70 high-rise buildings around central Delhi.
Obama reached ITC Maurya, the hotel where he will be staying, after touching down at Palam airport and customary greetings. He will receive a traditional reception at Rashtrapati Bhavan around noon and also pay homage at Mahatma Gandhi's samadhi at Raj Ghat later.
The President's House has been decked up for the occasion. Digintaries and VIPs including finance minister Arun Jaitley and Delhi LG Najeeb Jung, along with PM Modi, will be present on the occasion.
Later, Prime Minister Modi and the US President will discuss a range of issues including defense and counter-terrorism at Hyderabad House within hours, but officials said efforts to combat climate change will figure prominently in the talks.
"At the front burner in terms of our bilateral relationship, the cooperation on clean energy and climate change is critically important," said Ben Rhodes, a White House official.
Indians officials are optimistic that the relations between the world's two largest democracies will move forward on many issues including the seven-year-old civil nuclear deal.
Speculation swirled ahead of the US President's visit about India and the US announcing a breakthrough agreement on climate change along the lines of the US-China deal in 2014 as Washington looks to secure political support for a global climate deal in Paris this year.
New Delhi and Washington have not commented on these reports. But India has been reluctant to follow the US and China in committing to a peak year for emissions on the grounds it needs economic growth to alleviate poverty.
Keeping in line with his efforts towards closer economic and defence ties with India, Obama's delegation has Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, Democratic Senator Mark Warner, and a host of other lawmakers, cabinet members, and business leaders.
On the second day, after attending the Republic Day Parade, Obama will meet the CEOs of some of the top Indian companies with PM Modi. Some agreements between India and American companies are expected to be announced after the meeting in presence of two leaders.
The US delegation, which includes US trade representative Michael Froman, will bring up trade, specifically what Washington sees as impediments posed by Indian rules and practices. India too will bring up its priorities.
On Tuesday, Obama will join PM Modi on a special edition of the latter's radio programme where listeners have been asked to pre-submit questions by Sunday to the leaders on the programme "Mann Ki Baat".
"It's the symbolism of the visit that will be hard to beat," Ashley Tellis, the dean of DC experts on India-US ties, told a group of American reporters traveling to India for the visit, "The symbolism is really big."It sends a signal to three audiences, he explained. First, from Modi to skeptics on relations with the US in his own party. Second, to the neighborhood. And third, the world.
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at Palam airport on Sunday. (Vipin Kumar/ HT Photo)