NEW DELHI: US Secretary of State John Kerry met India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the first time on Friday, hoping to break the ice with a leader once shunned by Washington.
Kerry, who held talks with senior Indian officials on Thursday, has voiced optimism about expanding cooperation between the world’s two largest democracies after Modi’s right-wing government won a decisive electoral mandate.
But a raft of disputes have cast a shadow over hopes for a warmer relationship, with India on Thursday blocking a major World Trade Organization (WTO) pact on customs procedures.
“We want to try to really take the relationship to a new place,” Kerry said ahead of Friday’s meeting.
“People in India love to debate; they love to engage in the tug of public discourse. And so it’s harder sometimes to get things done, but we have that in common, more so than many other countries with whom we deal in the region and to the east of here,” he added.
The United States has little relationship with Modi himself, a Hindu nationalist who was refused a US visa in 2005 over allegations that he turned a blind eye to anti-Muslim riots as leader of the western state of Gujarat.
The United States caught up with other Western nations during the election campaign, sending its ambassador to meet Modi who since taking office has shown no visible signs of holding a grudge over his past treatment.
But US officials, who value frank and free-wheeling relationships with foreign leaders, are unsure what to expect from Modi who is known for his austere, solitary lifestyle, and is not believed to be at ease in English.
Modi, who as a young man wandered the Himalayas, is seen as a very different character than his predecessor Manmohan Singh, a bookish Oxford-educated economist with whom President Barack Obama had found a kinship.
Kerry, the polyglot son of a diplomat, has nurtured personal relationships as he pursues key goals including seeking peace in the Middle East.
The United States has sought to put relations with India on firmer ground after the Modi visa row and a crisis in December, when US authorities arrested an Indian diplomat for allegedly mistreating her servant, infuriating New Delhi.
But new disputes have kept arising. On Thursday, the WTO said that the 160-member body had failed to approve a landmark pact that would streamline global customs procedures.
India had stalled the pact as it pushed for the WTO to give the green light on the developing power’s stockpiling of subsidizsed food. India says the policy is vital to help the poor, but rich nations charge that the practice distorts global trade.
The United States voiced “disappointment” and “regret” over India’s stance, although Kerry insisted that Washington was sympathetic to concerns about feeding the poor.