US President Barack Obama flew into Mumbai on Saturday aiming to boost ties and seal big-ticket business deals to secure jobs and exports days after voters punished his Democrats in mid-term elections.
Obama, accompanied by his wife Michelle, waved as he descended the steps to shake hands with waiting dignitaries, including the US ambassador to India, Timothy J. Roemer. He was received by Union Minister Salman Khurshid and Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan who presented the US President a memento.
"We are happy to receive you at mumbai, financial capital of India," Chavan said and presented him a coffee table book on Maharashtra, titled 'Maharashtra'. "The president said he was happy to be in Mumbai and he was always curious about the city," said Chavan.
Chavan also told Obama that the book had entire information about the state to which the presidet responded, saying that he would read the book.In Mumbai, Obama's first stop will be the luxury Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, where he will pay respects to the victims of the 2008 terrorist attacks.
One of the first diplomatic tests for Obama will be at the Taj. The Indian government will want a strong statement against Pakistan for fostering militants, but Washington must tread a fine line between appeasing New Delhi and supporting its regional ally.
Across town, police have removed coconuts around Mani Bhavan, where Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi stayed while in Mumbai and which now serves as a museum that Obama will visit on Saturday.
He will then attend a meeting with hundreds of US and Indian business leaders. He arrives in New Delhi on Sunday.
Obama's Saturday-to-Monday trip to India started just four days after his Democratic party sustained big election losses tied to the weak economy, raising some doubts over how much the trip can yield given the pressures at home.
But Obama clearly outlined that his goal was to strike "billions of dollars in contracts that will support tens of thousands of American jobs", and stated his intent to "reduce barriers to United States exports and increase access to the Indian market".
"It is hard to overstate the importance of Asia to our economic future," Obama wrote in an opinion piece in the 'New York Times' on Friday.
"It can be tempting, in times of economic difficulty, to turn inward, away from trade and commerce with other nations. But in our interconnected world, that is not a path to growth, and that is not a path to jobs. We cannot be shut out of these markets."
On the agenda will be lucrative defence ties. The United States has held more military exercises with India in the past year than any other country, and U.S. firms Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp are bidding for a $11 billion deal for 126 fighter jets.
But first, Obama will have to counter Indian perceptions he has relegated Asia's third-largest economy behind rivals China and Pakistan and has not recognised its growing global weight.
Washington faces a host of hurdles, including Indian worries that signing defence pacts -- which are necessary for the U.S. arms sales to go through -- may land New Delhi in a wider entanglement with the US military.
A civil nuclear deal with the United States was signed in 2008 to great fanfare, but it struggled through parliament and now the accord has sparked criticism that US companies in the sector will be discouraged to invest due to high liabilities.
Also, an increase in US visa fees, a ban on offshoring by the state of Ohio and the Indian IT industry's portrayal in campaign publicity as a drain on US jobs have set a frosty tone in India.
"It has become so difficult to process visas these days and that is hurting us a lot," said Siddesh Apraj, an employee of India's second-largest outsourcer, Infosys Technology Ltd.
Obama will also push for greater access for U.S. companies to India's market of 1.2 billion people. But given the political opposition in India to moves such as modern retail that could open to the market to firms such as Wal-Mart, a quick decision was unlikely.
A sign posted by the Congress of All India Traders near the Mani Bhavan proclaimed on Friday: "Retailers welcome President Obama in India but not foreign direct investment in retail."
Obama will also visit Indonesia, South Korea and Japan on a 10-day tour that will see Washington push to prevent countries unilaterally devaluing currencies to protect their exports, a top theme at the Group of 20 heads of state meet in Seoul next week.
(With Reuters, AFP, PTI inputs)