Clinton arrives in India for sights and sound bites

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The Independent Online

Bill Clinton arrived in Delhi yesterday for a six-day tour of South Asia, the first by an American president in more than two decades.

On the eve of the visit the President declared: "I will do what I can to reduce tension in the Indian subcontinent, to reduce the likelihood of weapons proliferation and of conflict."

Mr Clinton's visit is something of a smorgasbord. With his daughter, Chelsea, he will visit the Taj Mahal, see tigers in the wild, and tour the "Pink City" of Jaipur in Rajasthan. But the 10-year insurgency in Kashmir will be on everyone's minds, and when it is on Mr Clinton's lips his Indian hosts will grin and bear it.

For them, as they repeat often, Kashmir is "not a disputed territory". Mr Clinton will beg to differ: the dispute exists, the disaffection of Kashmir's Muslims is a fact, people die in the dispute every day, and the two states which disagree so violently on the subject both possess nuclear weapons. India has promised no first use of them, but not so Pakistan.

But President Clinton - the first US leader to visit India since Jimmy Carter 22 years ago - has determined that his Indian trip (he will spend a few hours in Bangladesh and Pakistan) will be more than tense exchanges with officials. Locked into their Cold War camps, the two countries have been suspicious of each otherthrough India's half century of independence. In the twilight of his presidency, Mr Clinton has decided it is time to change that.

India always changes slowly, and the weak governments it had in the 90s did not make policy change easier. But change has taken place. Mr Clinton was burnt in effigy before his arrival yesterday, but the Marxists and protectionists who are protesting against his visit seem to be on the lunatic fringes.

The change can be traced to last summer and the Kargil mountain war between India and Pakistan. Despite its long relationship with Pakistan, the US was quick to judge thatPakistan was the offending party. India's restraint helpedbuild on this foundation of trust. In the process the US began inching towards the Indian position, which essentially means freezing the status quo.

Indian and US goals for the Clinton visit may be vague, but they are vaguely the same. The US Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, Karl Inderfurth, said 10 days ago that while in the past India and the US had been "estranged democracies", President Clinton wanted on this trip to transform that to "engaged democracies". Mr Inderfurth said: "US thinking about, and policies towards India have entered a new phase. We seek a broad, constructive engagement."

The Indian politician most responsible for the thawing of the position towards the US, Jaswant Singh, the Foreign Minister, said of the Clinton visit that it would be "directional not destinational"; the countries, in other words,were moving in a a new direction, but not hell-bent on arriving anywhere.

Any substantive agreement on the other main issue dividing the nations, nuclear proliferation, is pie in the sky. Washington may not like that, but with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty unratified at home, they can do little but frown, shrug, and move on.