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Kerry starts first trip to India as top US diplomat

NEW DELHI--U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in New Delhi on Sunday for his first visit to India as the top U.S. diplomat, looking to deliver on a pledge to realize “the full potential” in stuttering bilateral ties.

Kerry called for a “central role” for India in Afghanistan's 2014 elections as he warned of potential difficulties in the war-torn nation as U.S. forces withdraw.

“The world's largest democracy can play a central role in helping the government of Afghanistan improve its electoral system and create a credible and independent framework for resolving disputes,”Kerry said in New Delhi.

Kerry, who flew in from Qatar, is set to address Indian concerns about the upcoming U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan on a three-day visit as well as discuss cooperation on issues such as climate change and education.

He is scheduled to hold talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday as well as Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid.

In a video message ahead of his visit, Kerry said U.S. 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.”

Indian officials have voiced their concerns to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan next year and negotiate with the Taliban, who are sworn enemies of India.

Vikram Doraiswami, a senior official in the Indian foreign ministry who has responsibility for relations with the U.S., said last week that Afghanistan would definitely feature high in the agenda.

“Afghanistan is of course part of our region so we would be interested to listen to the U.S. ... to compare notes with them on what we understand of what is happening. Definitely it is on our agenda.”

In an editorial published ahead of his arrival, The Hindu newspaper said that Kerry would have to battle a feeling in New Delhi that he was too “sympathetic” to the Pakistani military establishment.

“Indian nightmares about a possible return of the Taliban and its allies as the rulers of the country, will doubtless figure high in the talks,” it said. “New Delhi will be looking to Mr. Kerry ... for reassurances.”

Afghanistan is one of irritants in ties between the two countries which saw an upturn during the presidency of George W. Bush but analysts say are now in the doldrums.

U.S. business leaders have voice frustration over what they charge are unfair trading practices in India. Drug firms in particular have been angered by India's championing of generic drugs — which advocates say save lives in poor nations.

India in turn has been alarmed by proposals in the U.S. Congress to curb visas to high-tech workers.

Kerry, who is being accompanied by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, is expected to push for India's support on climate change during a speech on Sunday night.

U.S. campaigners have urged Kerry to work with India on climate change, saying cooperation on issues such as solar power and energy efficiency will help limit carbon emissions as India continues its rapid urbanization.

The visit comes less than a year before India goes to the polls, with the controversial Gujarat state minister Narendra Modi leading the opposition BJP's campaign.

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