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Obama lands in Delhi, nuclear deal breakthrough likely

In a departure from protocol, Prime Minister Narendra Modi today received US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the Delhi Airport today. Foreign policy observers construed it as a signal that Obama – Modi discussions later in the afternoon were likely to deliver concrete results, including a breakthrough in the deadlock on the nuclear deal.

It was a robust bear hug that Obama gave Modi with the Prime Minister responding warmly. The reception was similar to what Obama got on his last visit to India. The then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to receive him at the Delhi Airport as he Air Force One landed from Mumbai in November 2010.

As for US presidential visits, the departure from protocol with the Indian PM of the day receiving the American President at the airport is more the norm. The protocol says that a minister in waiting receives the visiting dignitary at airport and accompanies him to his public events. It is Minister for Power Piyush Goyal for the current Obama visit.

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But Indian PMs have received US presidents at the airport right from the first presidential visit. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, President Rajendra Prasad and Vice President S Radhakrishnan received US President Dwight D Eisenhower at the Safdarjang Airport in his December 1958 visit. Nehru and Eisenhower had then travelled to Rashtrapati Bhavan in an open top car to a tumultuous reception.

Both Prime Minister Morarji Desai and President Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy received visiting US President Jimmy Carter at the airport in January 1978. Manmohan Singh, who had a great rapport with George W Bush, received the US President at the Delhi Airport on his March 2006 visit, as he did Obama and Michelle four years later.

Indira Gandhi, however, sent her minister in waiting to receive US President Richard Nixon during his 1969 visit. The two had a frosty relationship. But this isn’t always a sign of poor rapport. US President Bill Clinton was received at the Delhi Airport during his March 2000 visit by the then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, and not PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for what turned out to be a seminal visit in the context of India-US relations.

Obama will be given a ceremonial reception at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and visited the Raj Ghat to pay his respects to Mahatma Gandhi before a lunch at Hyderabad House and talks with Modi, where the two will also address the media and likely announce the breakthrough in the nuclear deal. The American companies have had reservations over the nuclear liability law. There have been three meetings between the US and Indian contact groups in the last 45 days to untangle some of the knotty issues. There have been meetings in Vienna, Delhi and also a meeting last week in London that was extended by a day on Friday.

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