After six years out in the cold, Bush makes his passage to India

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President George Bush arrives in Delhi today for a visit that India sees as recognition of its status as an emerging global power. For its part, the US hopes the trip will cement a growing strategic alliance with India, and open the doors of one of the world's fastest growing economies.

The centrepiece of the visit is a planned deal to share American civilian nuclear technology with India ­ just eight years after the US led calls for international sanctions after India exploded its first bomb.

As well as a summit with the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, President Bush will meet Indian business leaders, in a sign the US now regards India as an economy it cannot afford to ignore. Before President Bill Clinton arrived in 2000, no American president had visited India for more than two decades, reflecting Washington's indifference to a perennially poor country, which ­ throughout the Cold War ­ tended to side with the Soviet Union.

But all that has now changed ­ not so much as a result of India's detonation of a nuclear bomb in 1998 ­ but because of the explosion of the Indian economy that began at the same time. Today, India's growth is running at an annual rate of 8 per cent and, in yesterday's budget, the Finance Minister announced he wanted to raise it to 10 per cent. Some economists predict India could become the world's third biggest economy by 2032.

But there is more to President Bush's sudden interest in all things Indian.

To the north lies China, growing as fast or faster than India and generally seen in Washington as the most likely global rival of the US in the decades ahead. Increasingly, Washington sees Delhi as a counterweight, and a means of containing China's ambitions.

India's appeal is also ideological. In contrast to authoritarian China, it is a democracy ­ the most populous in the world. It is also a non-Muslim state in the arc of Islamic countries that stretches from the Middle East to south-east Asia.

"Consider the key countries of the world," Robert Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India wrote in India Today magazine this week. " Which of them share vital national interests with the US? India may head the list in the long run."

But India is not welcoming the US embrace as enthusiastically as the White House might have wished. Mr Singh's left-wing coalition allies are planning demonstrations against Mr Bush's visit. A speech by the US President had to be shifted from its original venue at the Indian parliament ­ where President Clinton spoke in 2000 ­ after MPs from government parties threatened to heckle him. Instead, Mr Bush will give his speech at one of Delhi's historic forts.

Moreover, the nuclear technology sharing deal, supposed to be the centrepiece of the visit, has yet to be finalised, and doubts persisted yesterday that it would be settled in time.

The Americans are demanding India makes a greater separation between its civilian and military nuclear programmes. But India, ever prickly over issues of national sovereignty, is resisting some of the details, and the head of the country's nuclear programme recently came out against the deal in a front-page interview with an Indian newspaper ­ much to Mr Singh's displeasure.

The opposition to Mr Bush's visit also reflects widepread dislike of his foreign policy. A poll in Outlook found 72 per cent of Indians believed the US was a bully.