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Kerry to test waters with India's Modi

© Pool/AFP | US Secretary of State John Kerry and his delegation (R) meet with Indian External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and her delegation (L) during his visit in New Delhi on July 31, 2014US Secretary of State John Kerry and his delegation (R) meet with Indian External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and her delegation (L) during his visit in New Delhi on July 31, 2014

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the first time on Friday, hoping to break the ice with a leader once shunned by Washington.

Kerry, who held talks with senior Indian officials on Thursday, voiced optimism about expanding cooperation between the world's two largest democracies after Modi's right-wing government won a decisive electoral mandate.

But a raft of disputes have cast a shadow over hopes for a warmer relationship, with India on Thursday blocking a major World Trade Organisation pact on customs procedures.

The United States has little relationship with Modi himself, a Hindu nationalist who was refused a US visa in 2005 over allegations that he turned a blind eye to anti-Muslim riots as leader of the western state of Gujarat.

The United States caught up with other Western nations during the election campaign, sending its ambassador to meet Modi who since taking office has shown no visible signs of holding a grudge over his past treatment.

But US officials, who value frank and free-wheeling relationships with foreign leaders, are unsure what to expect from Modi who is known for his austere, solitary lifestyle and is not believed to be at ease in English.

Modi, who as a young man wandered the Himalayas, is seen as a very different character than his predecessor Manmohan Singh, a bookish Oxford-educated economist with whom President Barack Obama had found a kinship.

- Break from Middle East efforts -

Kerry, the polyglot son of a diplomat, has nurtured personal relationships as he pursues key goals including seeking peace in the Middle East.

The top US diplomat went ahead with the trip to India despite working around the clock to end the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip. Just hours before his scheduled meeting, Kerry called a news conference at 3 am (2130 GMT) to announce a 72-hour ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

Indian ministers voiced understanding as Kerry frequently excused himself from meetings to take phone calls to broker the ceasefire, which was achieved in the early hours after an official dinner, US officials said.

- WTO deal collapses -

The United States has sought to put relations with India on firmer ground after the Modi visa row and a crisis in December when US authorities arrested an Indian diplomat for allegedly mistreating her servant, infuriating New Delhi.

But new disputes have kept arising. On Thursday, the WTO said that the 160-member body had failed to approve a landmark pact that would streamline global customs procedures.

India had stalled the pact as it pushed for the WTO to give the green light on the developing power's stockpiling of subsidised food. India says the policy is vital to help the poor, but rich nations charge that the practice distorts global trade.

The United States voiced "disappointment" and "regret" over India's stance, although Kerry insisted that Washington was sympathetic to concerns about feeding the poor.

India, in turn, said it protested to Kerry over reports from former contractor Edward Snowden that US intelligence had snooped on Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party while it was in opposition.

US officials, however, have signalled that they do not want to create a new rift by renewing past concerns about Modi's track record on minority rights.

Kerry treaded lightly on the issue on Thursday, saying that the two democracies shared the belief that "every citizen, no matter their background, no matter their beliefs, can make their full contribution."

"From women's rights to minority rights, there is room to go further for both of us," Kerry said.