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India seeks new 'positive narrative' with US

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

India called Thursday for a "new positive narrative" with the United States, pointing to energy and education as areas to help boost a relationship that is friendly but sometimes seen as losing steam.

Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, in Washington to meet new US Secretary of State John Kerry, made a veiled swipe at Washington's pressure on India to open up its growing but long-protected economy to US and other foreign companies.

"Important as they are, market access issues in goods and services can either be seen in perspective or they can be made the defining narrative," said Mathai, India's top career diplomat.

"We also need to find a new positive narrative that can bind our countries closer together," he said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mathai said the United States -- whose shale gas boom is putting it on track to become a net energy exporter -- could do more with India on expanding use of fossil fuels, renewable energy, biofuels and energy grids.

He said that US exports could bring down the price of liquefied natural gas -- a politically sensitive matter for India -- and that Indians could offer necessary investments in US facilities.

Mathai also called for more cooperation in education, saying that India with its fast-growing middle class could learn from the US experience in promoting community colleges as an alternative to four-year universities.

He said New Delhi had concerns with the United States as well, including on visas and "our inability to initiate even a conversation" on exempting short-term Indian workers from paying into the Social Security retirement fund.

The world's two largest democracies have rapidly reconciled since the late 1990s after estrangement during the Cold War.

President Barack Obama has voiced support for building relations with India and, on a visit to New Delhi in 2010, backed the South Asian power's longtime goal of securing a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

But Indian commentators often complain that the relationship has lacked the same momentum as under former president George W. Bush, who pushed through a breakthrough agreement to cooperate on nuclear energy.

India has voiced unease as the United States pressured it to reduce its oil imports from Iran as part of Western and Israeli efforts to crack down on the Islamic republic's contested nuclear program.

Mathai said that India had "very old ties" with Iran and called for "quiet" conversations with the United States on the relationship.

He pointed out that India, which accuses arch-rival neighbor Pakistan of supporting attacks on its soil, relied on Iran for access into Afghanistan where New Delhi has contributed up to $2 billion in assistance.

India is among the most enthusiastic supporters of the US military presence in Afghanistan and President Hamid Karzai. The former Taliban regime was allied with Pakistan and gave refuge to virulently anti-Indian Islamic extremists.

Mathai voiced caution over US-backed attempts to negotiate a peace settlement with Taliban elements, saying that India sees little "dividing line" between Al-Qaeda and other militants.

He doubted that "these groups and those who support them have either had an epiphany or made a real strategic reassessment of their objectives."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130221/india-seeks-new-positive-narrative-us-0