NEW DELHI – A booming India beckons.

With its billion-plus people, the world’s largest democracy is in the midst of extraordinary economic growth – and all the successes and challenges that come with it.

A new India, as some have called it for some time, is on the move, turning the heads of political and business leaders around the world.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has noticed, visited, and launched an India Caucus in the Senate. “I was just amazed,” he said, recalling his Indian industry-sponsored trip two years ago.

On Wednesday night, President Bush arrived here after making a brief stop in Afghanistan to bolster its fledgling democracy and salute the U.S. troops who still patrol there.

In India to confer with government and business leaders, Bush is the first president to visit since Bill Clinton in 2000, only the second since Jimmy Carter in 1978 and the first Republican since Dwight Eisenhower in 1959.

But that’s about to change.

“A trip to India is no longer just a desired – but a required – part of an American president’s itinerary,” said Karl Inderfurth, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University who was assistant secretary of state for South Asia during the Clinton administration.

Inderfurth views Bush’s visit, following that of his Democratic predecessor, as a strong if belated signal of bipartisan support for a more enduring U.S.-India relationship. “Policy continuity,” as Inderfurth framed it, is “something we don’t see a lot of these days in Washington.”

Bush is particularly interested in pursuing what he calls the “strategic partnership” between the two nations. At the crux of that pursuit are the final negotiations on a deal announced during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the White House last summer for the United States to help India with the fuel and technical support needed to dramatically increase its nuclear power. The deal is contingent on India’s separating its civilian and military programs and agreeing to more international monitoring.

India’s commitment to democracy, diversity and freedom of religion make it a “natural partner” for the United States in fighting terrorism, promoting democracy and free trade and addressing critical health and energy concerns, Bush said, and he wants to foster better cooperation on all those fronts.

At the same time, India is eager to have the United States at its side as it harnesses its booming economy and emerges more prominently on the world stage.

The president and the United States fare much better in polls in India than in many other countries, where Bush’s decision to invade Iraq has ignited widespread opposition.

Still, before his arrival Wednesday, thousands of Indians gathered for an angry demonstration in central New Delhi. Some protesters called Bush a bully and a killer for ordering the invasion and demanded that he go home.

For Bush, the trip to South Asia will be a quick one. He’s spending just two working days in India, then a day in neighboring Pakistan on his way home.

Long bitter rivals, India and Pakistan both have nuclear arsenals and are parties to a dispute over the Himalayan territory of Kashmir.

“Not long ago, there was so much distrust between India and Pakistan that when America had good relations with one, it made the other one nervous,” Bush said, previewing his trip last week to the Asia Society in Washington.

“Changing that perception has been one of our administration’s top priorities,” he said, “and we’re making good progress.”

Still, it’s a juggling act.

“Clearly, the fear in Pakistan and the hope in India was that the president would make one stop” in India, said Kurt Campbell, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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