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Many Indians express ambivalence about closer ties with U.S.

NEW DELHI—President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hope to usher in a new era in U.S.-India relations when they meet Thursday in New Delhi. But Indians remain cautious about their country's budding relationship with the United States, and some are downright hostile.

A coalition of activists, union workers and students will lead a huge "Bush Go Home" march through the Indian capital as the two leaders meet.

Most Indians aren't as virulently opposed to closer ties with the United States as the protesters are, but many worry about being sucked into a relationship in which India is the junior partner.

"The suggestion that India is growing close to the United States is a bit premature," said retired navy Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar, a member of the prime minister's task force on global strategic developments. "I think the Indian leadership and people are still ambivalent about how close we should get to the United States."

Singh has been steering India steadily toward closer ties with the United States, breaking with the approach of the last half-century, when India's outlook was often anti-American and frequently was aligned with the Soviet Union.

The new course, supporters said, is laying the groundwork for the emergence of India as an economic and global power in the 21st century.

"This is a moment when we need to rewrite the song, to change the way we're going to deal with the world," Indian analyst C. Raja Mohan said this week at the release of his book on U.S.-India relations since Bush took office. "The future of India and Indian diplomacy in the next 40 years is going to be very different than the last 40."

The new approach has been wrenching for some in India's political class, and welcome for many others. A former prime minister, V.P. Singh, was among the demonstrators Wednesday who were chanting for Bush to go home.

"We've stopped snarling at each other," said K. Shankar Bajpai, an ambassador to the United States in the 1980s. "There was a time when bickering was characteristic of our relations."

Bush arrived in Delhi on Wednesday night after a surprise four-hour stopover in Afghanistan, where he officially opened a new U.S. Embassy and met with President Hamid Karzai. In a question-and-answer session, Bush promised to discuss with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf concerns that Pakistan is sheltering remnants of Afghanistan's deposed Taliban regime who cross the border to attack Afghan and American forces.

"I absolutely will bring up the cross-border infiltrations with President Musharraf," Bush said. "These infiltrations are causing harm to friends, allies and cause harm to U.S. troops."

Bush said he'd also remind Musharraf about the need to capture al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Omar, who are thought to be in Pakistan. "It's important that we bring these people to justice," the president said. "He (Musharraf) understands that. After all, they've tried to kill him four times."

Bush will spend two days in Delhi and the high-tech city of Hyderabad before moving on to neighboring Pakistan late Friday.

He's offered India a tremendously tempting carrot for improving relations with the United States: de facto recognition that India is an armed nuclear power. For more than three decades, the world has pressured India to get rid of its nuclear weapons, and India has refused. Now Bush is telling India that it's OK to keep them.

American and Indian officials were negotiating into the night in hopes of brokering a nuclear agreement that Bush and Singh could announce Thursday. "For India, it's very, very important, very symbolic to be given the key to this club," said Stephen Cohen, an expert on India at the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington.

Critics worry that their country, after years of striving to pursue an independent foreign policy, could become a puppet of the United States.

Mohan and other supporters of the nuclear deal argue that that kind of thinking is dated. Fifteen years of solid economic growth have begun to transform India. The time has come, they say, to take a seat at the table along with Europe, Russia, China, Japan—and, most importantly, the United States.

In reality, said Bhaskar, the retired commandant, India isn't there yet. It lags China economically, and its modest nuclear arsenal never will approach Russia's. But in reaching out to India, the Bush administration is recognizing the very real possibility that India could evolve into a significant regional and even global power by midcentury.

The question for Indians, Bhaskar said, is what India will give up by becoming cozier with the United States. Whether India's foreign policy is pro-American or anti-American, one goal rises above all others, Bhaskar said: India doesn't want to be told by others what to do.

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(Moritsugu is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): INDIA-BUSH

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