U.S. President George W. Bush, seeking to warm relations with the world's largest democracy, effusively praised his Indian hosts Thursday amid last-minute haggling in search of a nuclear deal with New Delhi.
"I have been received in many capitals around the world but I have never seen a reception as well-organized or as grand," Bush said after a colorful arrival ceremony in a sun-drenched plaza at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the imposing colonial-era presidential palace.
"It's an honor to be here," he said.
From under a red canopy outside the massive sandstone-colored building, the U.S. president heard the American national anthem and reviewed troops of the Indian armed services in striking dress uniforms and about a dozen members of a cavalry unit on horseback.
Bush and his wife, Laura, then visited a memorial to India's independence leader, M.K. Gandhi, standing in stocking feet for a moment of silence and wreath-laying at the site where he was cremated in 1948.
Following tradition, the Bushes tossed flower petals on the cremation platform _ repeating the gesture several times to make sure photographers could get the shot.
It was the start of a more than 12-hour day of events and meetings and the first full day of Bush's first visit to India. The centerpiece were crucial talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Bush, who arrived after sundown Wednesday, is the fifth U.S. president to visit India, which is home to more than 1 billion people and has the world's second-largest Muslim population.
The frantic negotiations for the nuclear pact, coupled with protests planned throughout Bush's stay, reflected India's mixed feelings about the visit by the leader of the United States, a country seen both as a loyal friend and a global bully.
Thousands of protesters demonstrated Thursday in New Delhi against the visit, marching through the city under the watch of police and soldiers.
Dozens of politicians, mainly from leftist parties, stood on the steps of the country's national parliament building, just a few blocks from where Bush was meeting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, chanting "Bush go back!" and "Down with Bush!"
"All these years, India has prided itself in its independent foreign policy, now we are selling our country to the Americans," said Usha Verma, a member of parliament from the Samajwadi Party, which draws much of its support from lower-caste voters. "We don't need American help."
While Indians generally have a positive view of the United States, the visit is bitterly opposed by many Muslim groups and leftist politicians who believe the country has grown too close to Washington. India is an overwhelmingly Hindu country, but still has a large Muslim minority among its more than one billion people, reports the AP.
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