Washington: US Secretary of State John Kerry forecast a transformation Wednesday in Washington's troubled relations with India as he headed to New Delhi for ice-breaking talks with new Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
For the past two decades, the world's two largest democracies have described themselves as natural allies, sharing similar concerns over China's rise and Islamic extremism.
But incidents including the US arrest of an Indian diplomat last year sent ties plunging to their lowest point in years, and the Hindu nationalist Modi had been treated as a pariah by Washington before he led his party to a decisive victory in April-May elections.
A new row is brewing over a customs deal but the Obama administration has been keen to emphasise areas where the two sides can make common cause in the build-up to the visit by Kerry and US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker who is already in India.
In a joint editorial with Pritzker in Wednesday's Economic Times, Kerry said Modi's strong mandate opened up possibilities for cooperation on issues from boosting trade to energy.
"The long-standing partnership between the US and India is on the cusp of an historic transformation," said the commentary in the Delhi-based daily.
"Working together, the world's oldest democracy and the world's largest democracy can forge a new era of shared prosperity and security for hundreds of millions of people in India, across Asia and the world."
The top US diplomat will hold talks with Indian officials on Thursday and meet Modi on Friday, said a US official travelling with Kerry, who stopped for refuelling in Germany.
For some observers, Kerry's three-day trip is in itself a sign of India's importance. He has focused much of his tenure on crises in the Middle East, and returned just Sunday from a gruelling, unsuccessful mission to end the Gaza conflict.
"It is significant that the secretary is able to stick to making time for the Strategic Dialogue with India when there are literally parts of the world in flames," said Alyssa Ayres, a former State Department official.
Despite strong ties between their people, the Indian and US governments have frequently been at odds.
After tensions during the Cold War and US sanctions over India's 1998 nuclear tests, former president Bill Clinton began reconciliation efforts. His successor George W. Bush pushed through a landmark nuclear cooperation accord with India.
But some Indian commentators saw President Barack Obama as less interested in the relationship, even though he threw US support behind New Delhi's leading goal of winning a UN Security Council seat.
Relations took a sharp turn for the worse when US authorities in December arrested an Indian diplomat on allegations of mistreating her servant, leading New Delhi to retaliate against US personnel.
Modi has little reason for gratitude toward the United States. In 2005, Washington refused him a visa over allegations of turning a blind eye to anti-Muslim riots as leader of the state of Gujarat.
Other nations were quicker to embrace Modi, with British and French ambassadors courting him well before the election. He also travelled to Japan and China.
D.H. Pai Panandiker, head of the Delhi-based RGP Foundation think tank, said the US was seen as unresponsive by cold-shouldering Modi for so long and anger had been fuelled by the diplomat's arrest.
"There is a sense of resentment," he told AFP.
New row on WTO
Obama has invited Modi to the White House in September. Modi does not appear eager to play up grudges and instead has shown pragmatism, meeting in his first months in office with the leaders of Pakistan and China despite his past hardline stances.
But in an unexpected rift ahead of Kerry's visit, Modi's government warned it may hold up a global customs pact that must be ratified by Thursday unless the World Trade Organization approves India's food subsidy programmes.
India buys grain at inflated prices to sell at subsidised prices. The program is important for India's hundreds of millions of poor, but rich nations say it distorts trade.
In a speech in Mumbai, Pritzker said she was "very optimistic" about the new Modi government and also told the Press Trust of India she was "optimistic" that a solution would be found with India in the final hours of negotiations at the WTO.
But she was also quoted by PTI as saying the US was "very disappointed" with India for stepping away from previous commitments.
The Times of India said the WTO dispute had the potential to sour ties.
"Single-handedly holding up progress in multilateral trade negotiations sends the wrong signals to foreign investors and partners," it said in an editorial.