NEW DELHI - Tens of thousands of Muslims and communists took to the streets across India on Wednesday, protesting against the visit of U.S. President George W. Bush, hours before his arrival.
Bush's three-day visit to the world's largest democracy, which is also Asia's third-largest economy, has raised expectations in India as it sheds its socialist baggage and turns to the West to help it become a regional power.
A member of the Students Federation of India (SFI) holds a badge during a protest against U.S. President George W. Bush in the southern Indian city of Bangalore February 28, 2006. About 5,000 personnel including snipers, commandos and U.S. marines using helicopters, bomb detectors and electronic jammers will protect Bush during his visit to India this week, officials said on Monday. (REUTERS/Jagadeesh Nv)
But it has also drawn the ire of leftist and Muslim groups who staged large protests in several cities across the country against Bush's policies.
Bush landed at Indira Gandhi international airport early evening after flying in from a surprise visit to Afghanistan.
About 100,000 Muslim men, many of them wearing prayer caps, gathered in a public ground in the heart of the Indian capital shouting anti-Bush slogans.
"Go back, Bush", "Bush is a killer", "Bully Bush, buzz off", "Bush, stop the ambush", they shouted as hundreds of policemen in riot gear kept watch.
"The people of the country do not want this killer of innocent men, women and children to come here," one man said.
In the eastern city of Kolkata, a leftist stronghold, about 25,000 communist supporters converged on the city center to take part in a public meeting organized by the "Committee Against Bush Visit".
"Under President Bush, the U.S. continues to occupy Iraq and oppress its people. It threatens Syria and has targeted Iran on the issue of its nuclear program," the committee said in a statement.
"The Indian government is shamefully succumbing to U.S. imperialist pressures," it said.
Elsewhere, about 200 student communist activists burned a straw effigy of Bush in the southern IT hub of Bangalore.
Washington and New Delhi hope Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will clinch a landmark civilian nuclear cooperation deal, seen as the centerpiece of the visit, at their talks on Thursday.
The deal, agreed in principle last July when Singh visited Washington, has run into trouble over differences on nuclear-armed India's plan to separate its military and civilian atomic plants to prevent proliferation, a key requirement.
However, both sides have tried to play down expectations even as they continue to discuss the number of reactors India will declare as civilian and open them up for international inspections.
Clinching the deal during the visit would be "a great contribution of President Bush to ending India's isolation from the world nuclear order", Singh said in an interview to a U.S. TV channel ahead of the president's arrival.
"I look upon it as an act of historic reconciliation," Singh said, referring to the past three decades during which India was prevented from accessing outside nuclear technology and supplies needed to meet its soaring energy needs.
India has refused to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty calling it discriminatory, leading to its isolation.
India's extensive atomic weapons program to counter Pakistan and China's nuclear arms is a further concern for some members of the U.S. Congress, who have cast doubt on the viability of any deal between Singh and Bush.
Bush is also due to visit the technology city of Hyderabad in the south on Friday before flying to neighboring Pakistan.
Bush's visit was unlikely to repeat the "emotionally charged" successes of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower's trip in 1959 and Bill Clinton's in 2000, said Dennis Kux, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
"The challenge for Bush (and his Indian hosts) will be to prevent possible disappointments over nuclear matters from overshadowing the positives during the visit," Kux wrote in the latest edition of India's Outlook magazine.
Additional reporting by Nigam Prusty in New Delhi and Bappa Majumdar in Kolkata.
© Reuters 2006