WASHINGTON - Six years ago, the last time a prime minister of India addressed the U.S. Congress, he talked about Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and the end of the Cold War. This time, the speech is likely to touch on computer software, energy technology and financial markets.
Such is the changing relationship between the world's two largest democracies, as Washington continues to seek closer ties to a country that is still recovering from its decades as a socialist Soviet client and continues to float near the brink of nuclear war with Pakistan.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee began a visit to Washington yesterday and was scheduled to speak to Congress this morning and meet with President Clinton tomorrow.
His trip reciprocates Clinton's five-day sojourn in India in March and marks what is supposed to be a series of annual visits between the two countries' heads of state.
No significant policy changes are expected from the summit, U.S. officials said, although new agreements are expected on sharing technology and fighting terrorism.
Rather, Vajpayee's meetings in Washington are seen as a chance for the prime minister to tout India as a destination for American capital, for both sides to explore new avenues for economic and technical cooperation and for Washington to convey its continuing concern over India's explosive relationship with Pakistan.
In the United States and India, "you have two countries that have really been estranged or distanced for many, many years," said Stephen P. Cohen, a South Asia specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"The major purpose of the trip on both sides," Cohen added, "is to sustain the appearance of a dialogue."
More than an appearance, U.S. officials hope. They argue that the increasingly parallel interests of India and the United States should support genuinely closer relations in both economic and political spheres.
"We are the oldest democracy. They are the world's biggest democracy," said White House national security spokesman P.J. Crowley. "There is an opportunity here to have a qualitatively new relationship with India."
As if to underscore that point, Vajpayee's visit will also showcase the growing and increasingly prosperous community of Indian-Americans, who include Hotmail founder Sabeer Bhatia and Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Kholsa. Vajpayee is scheduled to attend a private reception of Indian-Americans Saturday night, and he'll presumably be talking to the dozens of Internet entrepreneurs in the crowd about investing in his country.
"You now have 2.2 million Indian-Americans in the United States, and you can imagine the number of their relations and friends" who come here on visits from India, said Promodh Malhotra, who planned to attend Saturday's event and who is head of Washington-based Global Finance Associates Inc., a small international investment bank.
'An existing market'
"There is a communication between these two countries which is just extraordinary," he added. "This whole idea of India as a potential market is being replaced by the idea of India as an existing market."
Officially, Vajpayee will be talking to Clinton and other U.S. officials mainly about economic matters.
"Vajpayee didn't come here to talk about nonproliferation issues," said a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He came here to talk about commercial issues, exchange of technology, medical information, things like that."
But strategic and security matters will inevitably crop up, and foreign policy analysts argue it is this area that should continue to be of the greatest concern to Washington.
U.S.-India relations have been strained since 1998 over India's testing of several nuclear bombs and over its longstanding dispute with Pakistan over the northern Indian province of Kashmir and Jammu.
India and Pakistan came close to war a year ago after Pakistani-backed insurgents escalated hostilities in Kashmir. Pakistan says it offers moral support to the insurgents but denies that it backs them militarily.
Washington blamed Pakistan for the flare-up, but since then it has urged India to resume a dialogue with Pakistan, which Delhi says it refuses to do unless Islamabad restrains continued guerrilla attacks in Kashmir.
U.S. sanctions imposed after India's nuclear tests remain in effect.
Top hot spot
Because of the Kashmir dispute and the fact that both Pakistan and India hold nuclear weapons, "the United States has called South Asia the most dangerous place in the world, and I think that's true," said Cohen. "But the Indians don't believe it's as scary as we do, and that's going to be a point of disagreement."
The Clinton administration also has urged India, to no avail, to sign the international Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Although Clinton has signed the treaty, Congress has refused to ratify it. South Asia analysts are interested to see whether Vajpayee mentions the subject in his appearance on Capitol Hill today.
"India has indicated to us that it is building a consensus in the country to sign the CTBT," Crowley said. "We've signed it. We're committed to ratifying it. We do expect this to come up" in the discussions.
Officials at India's embassy in Washington did not provide a preview of Vajpayee's speech before Congress today.
But he'll likely give a very different address from the one delivered in 1994 by then-Prime Minster P.V. Narasimha Rao, who talked about political philosophy, history and India's legacy as a Soviet client.
A speech Vajpayee gave to a private group in New York last week might provide a preview.
"We will continue to make our markets more conducive to enterprise and initiative," he said. "We will continue to make our institutions stronger and more transparent. ...
"Openness and transparency, rule of law and free flow of information that characterize democracy are also the institutions on which durable and stable market economies are founded."