NEW DELHI – President Bush arrived in India on Wednesday as talks on a landmark U.S.-Indian nuclear pact were down to the wire and tens of thousands of Indians rallied across the country to protest his visit.
Protesters in New Delhi chanted "Death to Bush," while Muslims in the southern city of Hyderabad held a mock funeral for the American president.
The nuclear pact is touted as the cornerstone of an emerging strategic partnership between the two countries after nearly a half-century of Cold War estrangement. But negotiators have struggled to settle differences over how to separate India's tightly entwined civilian and military atomic programs.
"Our people are talking to the Indians, today on the plane," Bush said during a surprise stop in Afghanistan before his arrival in New Delhi on Wednesday. "We'll be doing so when we land in New Delhi."
He called the pact a "difficult issue" for both governments. "Hopefully we can reach an agreement, and if not we will continue to work on it until we do," he said.
The last-minute efforts to seal the nuclear pact coupled with Wednesday's protests underscored India's mixed feelings toward Bush and the United States — a country many here see as a loyal friend but also a global bully.
At Wednesday's protest in central New Delhi, tens of thousands of people, many of them Muslim, chanted "Death to Bush!" and waved placards reading, "Bully Bush, Go Home." Muslims in India's part of Kashmir also protested the Bush visit.
While Bush remains more popular in India than he is in many other countries, some here object to U.S. policies, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. India, an overwhelmingly Hindu nation of more than 1 billion people, has the world's second-largest Muslim population.
Dozens of protests have been planned by Islamic leaders and communist politicians during Bush's three-day visit.
Setting aside protocol, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh welcomed Bush at the airport as he arrived with his wife Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Indian and U.S. officials had hoped to seal the nuclear deal before Bush arrived, but disagreements over which of India's nuclear facilities would be put under international safeguards have held up the talks.
"We need a certain degree of clarity on our mutual commitments," Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran told reporters Tuesday. "We need to make sure there are no ambiguities which may create difficulties for us in the future."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice singled out one particularly contentious subject in comments Wednesday.
"The one thing that is absolutely necessary is that any agreement would assure that once India has decided to put a reactor under safeguard that it remain permanently under safeguard," she said.
Rice and U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley briefed reporters on Air Force One as Bush flew from Washington.
The pact would allow the United States to provide nuclear technology and fuel desperately needed by India to feed its booming but energy-starved economy. In return, India has pledged to open its civilian nuclear programs to international inspection.
The separation of India's civilian and military program's is key because the U.S. has only agreed to recognize India as a civilian nuclear power — not a nuclear weapons state.
Washington and New Delhi disagree over how many of India's 22 nuclear reactors should be placed in the civilian category.
The deal, signed in July, must be approved by a skeptical U.S. Congress, where some members have complained it will allow India to get around the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which New Delhi hasn't signed.
Some Indian scientists have also voiced concerns the deal would undermine the country's nuclear program, although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged Monday not to sacrifice India's national security for the pact.
Rice said India's neighbor and nuclear rival, Pakistan, would not qualify for the same sort of nuclear treatment as New Delhi. "Pakistan is not in the same place as India," Rice said. "I think everybody understands that."
Washington says India has an unblemished record on nuclear proliferation and has not sold its technology to any outsiders. Pakistan has acknowledged it has secretly sold nuclear technology to a number of countries.
Bush plans to spend Thursday and Friday in India before leaving Saturday morning for Pakistan.