Kerry seeks 'full potential' in India

US Secretary of State John Kerry heads to India on Sunday calling for the two countries' relations to achieve their "full potential," amid charges that years of momentum have ground to a halt.

Kerry will spend three days in New Delhi on his first visit to India as the top US diplomat, where he plans to discuss cooperation on education and climate change and take up concerns over plans for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In a video message ahead of his visit, Kerry said President Barack Obama's administration held a "firm belief that a strong India is in America's national interests."

"The United States not only welcomes India as a rising power, we fervently support it," Kerry said.

"This is the time for both the United States and India to challenge ourselves in order to reach higher, in order to strengthen the bonds that we share, and to realize the full potential of our partnership."

Kerry pointed to Obama's support for New Delhi as a permanent member of the UN Security Council -- one of the emerging power's top foreign policy goals -- and his own efforts as a senator to approve a nuclear cooperation agreement.

The accord, which ended longstanding opprobrium over India's nuclear program, was heralded by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then president George W. Bush as the start of a deeper relationship between the world's two largest democracies after estrangement during the Cold War.

But even some erstwhile champions of better ties have grown frustrated. US business leaders have urged the Obama administration to threaten retaliation against India over what they charge are unfair trading practices.

India has angered foreign companies by championing generic drugs -- which advocates say save lives in poor nations -- and by refusing to grant nuclear operators the liability protections they seek in case of accidents.

India in turn has been alarmed by proposals in the US Congress to curb visas to high-tech workers as well as US plans to end the unpopular Afghanistan war next year and negotiate with the Taliban, who are sworn enemies of India.

"We would like to get from the secretary a better idea of what the American plans are" in Afghanistan, a senior government official said in New Delhi.

Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, described the US-India relationship as "stable but boring, with a hint of frost in the air."

"There are no major kerfuffles, they are talking about more things than ever, but we don't see any big ideas or initiatives," he said.

"Both countries are grappling with their own sets of issues and, frankly, India has more or less fallen off the radar in Washington."

The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, urged Kerry to work with India on climate change, calling it a "pivotal opportunity" for cooperation.

The group said India and the United States could together boost solar power and increase energy efficiency standards, which would put a serious dent in carbon emissions as India's burgeoning middle class buys air conditioners.

Kerry, who will be joined by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, has long championed action on climate change. Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping also found some common ground on the issue when they met earlier this month.

Kerry's visit comes as India prepares for elections next year, with Gujarat state's controversial leader Narendra Modi expected to lead the Hindu nationalist main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

The United States has refused to issue Modi a visa due to allegations he turned a blind eye or worse to anti-Muslim riots in 2002. Britain recently ended its boycott of Modi in an acknowledgement of his emerging national role.

A US official expected no change during the trip, saying that Kerry would meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh but did not have time to see the opposition.

Kerry will be heading to India from Qatar, where he will take part in a conference on Syria and talk about outreach to the Taliban.