In the first meeting between a senior Obama administration official and India's new prime minister, Secretary of State John Kerry urged Narendra Modi on Friday to drop his opposition to an international trade treaty and pursue a compromise on food subsidies.
The purpose of Kerry's visit was to strengthen ties with India and set the stage for Modi's meetings with President Barack Obama in September, when Modi is expected to attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York and then travel to Washington.
But even as the two sides signaled their desire for improved ties, India's posture on the trade agreement cast a shadow.
The United States is seeking to expand economic relations and to cooperate more closely on security and environmental issues. Obama has written a letter to Modi expressing his desire to strengthen relations.
Ties between the world's two largest democracies have suffered in recent months after an Indian diplomat was arrested and strip-searched in New York City in December on charges that she underpaid her maid and lied on a visa application. Complicating the meeting with Modi was earlier criticism by the State Department of his human rights record as chief minister of the state of Gujarat. The department denied him a visa in 2005.
Kerry, who was accompanied by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and other senior U.S. officials, began his meeting Friday morning by applauding Modi's "vision" for economic reform and development of green technology.
Promoting the role U.S. companies might play in advancing Modi's agenda, Kerry underscored that the two countries needed to agree on concrete steps that might be taken during the prime minister's Washington visit.
Modi was receptive and thanked Kerry for coming to India even as he tried to negotiate a cease-fire for the conflict in Gaza. Modi said he was interested in building trust. The meeting was described by a senior State Department official, who attended the meeting but asked not to be identified in accordance with the agency's protocol for briefing reporters.
But even as the United States is trying to foster improved ties, it is frustrated with India's opposition to a global trade accord that has been under discussion for months.
India has refused to withdraw its opposition to the pact unless it includes parallel measures that allow the government to subsidize and stockpile grains, a measure that Indian officials insist is necessary to protect its poor in case an unusually strong or weak rainy season hurts agricultural production.
Modi's opposition surprised U.S. officials and many analysts in India in part because many in Modi's party are deeply critical of a food security law passed by the last government as well as food storage efforts that Modi's government insists on protecting. India's opposition to the accord also worried U.S. officials planning for negotiations next year in Paris on a global climate pact, since they are hoping India will drop its longtime opposition to future limits on its use of coal.
In his meeting, Kerry asserted that the threatened trade pact could benefit emerging nations and that India should want to be part of the agreement.
Kerry told Modi that India's opposition to the accord was not in keeping with the prime minister's vision, the State Department official said. Kerry suggested that Modi set a quick timetable for developing a compromise.