- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2000

When Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee addresses a joint session of Congress today, he will mark the end of five decades of skepticism and hostility between the United States and his country.

The point will be driven home when Venkatchalaoathi Samuldrala of Parma, Ohio, becomes the first Hindu priest to offer the invocation before the House.

Mr. Vajpayee arrived last night for a five-day state visit that celebrates the economic and strategic ties that have been pulling India and the United States together since India abandoned the left-wing policies and anti-imperialist rhetoric that so annoyed U.S. governments during the Cold War.

Indian-American computer billionaires in Silicon Valley as well as a mutual fear of China and Islamic terrorism have helped to nudge the countries closer together.

But even as a new relationship emerges between the world's oldest and its most populous democracies, Mr. Vajpayee will be greeted by protesters complaining that his country has failed to protect India's Christian minority.

In perhaps a dozen incidents, churches have been burned and Hindu mobs have attacked missionaries, priests and nuns since Mr. Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party took power in 1998.

Kanti Bajpai, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, linked the attacks to a surge of nationalist pride after the BJP set off five nuclear blasts within weeks of its election.

"There's a feeling that we have the bombs and no one can tell us what to do," he said.

The ideology of the BJP and its militant parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), says Christians and Muslims came to India with hostile intentions to proselytize at the expense of Hinduism.

"Vajpayee needs to stand up and renounce that part of the ideology," said Stephen Cohen, a former State Department official and now a Brookings Institution senior fellow.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal body, called Monday for President Clinton to ask Mr. Vajpayee "to take more effective steps to protect religious freedom and the lives and security of persons of religious minorities in India."

Other problems in U.S.-Indian relations include India's refusal to end its nuclear weapons program and its slow progress in reforming a quasi-socialist economy, which has slowed investment.

While in Washington, Mr. Vajpayee will sign economic agreements for U.S. aid and training for power projects and housing.

India is also seeking, albeit not openly, an end to the congressional ban on military sales imposed after the 1998 nuclear tests.

India says it set off the blasts because it felt threatened by Pakistan's nuclear and missile programs, built with the aid of China, which had defeated India in a 1962 border war. India and Pakistan have fought three wars and continue to exchange border fire in the disputed state of Kashmir.

Two weeks after India displayed nuclear capability in May 1998, Pakistan followed suit with six explosions, leading Mr. Clinton to call the South Asian region the most dangerous place on earth.

However, India was heartened when Mr. Clinton, on a visit to the region in March, appeared to tilt U.S. policy toward India by calling for respect for the Line of Control dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan. He also called for an end to Pakistani aid to militants and terrorists crossing into India from Pakistan.

India now hopes Congress will increase from 115,000 to 200,000 the number of H1B visas issued each year for temporary immigrants with special work skills. Many of those visas would go to Indians to work on high-tech projects.

Some 300,000 Indian-Americans have become key players in high technology and are responsible for 40 percent of start-up firms in Silicon Valley, according to Stanford University professor Rafiq Dossani.

In addition, Microsoft and other U.S. firms have opened plants in the Indian cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad to utilize the nation's pool of skilled, English-speaking, relatively low-paid workers.

Mr. Vajpayee's visit reciprocates for Mr. Clinton's visit to India and comes as the Indian-American community of more than 1.5 million is becoming affluent and increasingly contributing to political candidates.

The Indian press reported this summer that the Republican platform of George W. Bush appeared to be more favorable to India than the Democratic platform because it spoke of mutual economic prospects.

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