Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George W. Bush have a full and pressing agenda to plough through when they meet later this week in New York to mark the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. There is a growing recognition in the Bush White House that the relationship between India and the United States could be the pivot on which the future balance of world power rests. Sixty years ago, at the end of the Second World War, three superpowers - the US, imperial Britain and the Soviet Union - began to reshape the world and their own complex relationships with each other. All were predominantly white, Christian and (bar pockets of the Soviet Union) relatively wealthy. Despite the cold war and the ideological schism between capitalism and communism, the three countries were united by common European ancestry and culture.
Within the next 20 years the world's three most powerful nations will be China, India and the US. They will reflect a vastly changed world. Confucian, Hindu and Christian values will form an unpredictable mix in the interplay between the three countries and will define global geopolitics well up to the end of the 21st century.
Farsighted US and Indian political analysts recognise that the Indo-US relationship has the potential to replace the US-British "special relationship" that sustained the Atlantic Alliance through most of the 20th century. It is with this background that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his team of foreign policy advisors must approach this week's meeting with President Bush.
India has four principal demands it wants Washington to meet. First, remove the roadblock to India's permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. Second, pursue Washington's promise to cooperate with India on its ambitious nuclear energy programme. Third, increase pressure on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to dismantle the infrastructure of terror in both Pakistan and PoK. And fourth, reduce US government subsidies to US farmers (over $100 billion a year) which unfairly penalise poor, marginal farmers in India.
For Washington, India presents an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity lies in India's democracy, English-speaking middle-class, IT skills and large market economy. The threat lies in India's magnetic offshoring potential that could lose the US millions of jobs over the next decade as well as in the possibility of India joining hands with co-Asian superpower China to form an anti-US economic and political alliance.
In the mid-20th century superpower triangle comprising the US, imperial Britain and the Soviet Union, the US knew that Britain with its common European lineage would always be on its side in a crunch. In the developing superpower triangle of the early-21st century, the roles have been reversed. India and China have a common Asian and civilisational lineage while the multi-coloured United States is the odd man out. In a crunch, where regional issues are concerned, the US can no longer bank on being in the majority out of three.
It is this American vulnerability that India's foreign policy team must exploit. The US needs India — its markets and its long-term geopolitical support — at least as much as India needs the US. Washington knows it will eventually have to give India permanent membership of the Security Council and put a complete end to Pakistani terrorism in Kashmir, while co-operating with India on nuclear energy. In return, India knows it will have to broaden market access to US goods and services and probably drop its plans for the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline.
As the Indian Prime Minister and the US President prepare to carry their July dialogue forward over the next few days, both will have new thoughts to ponder. Hurricane Katrina has not only altered the mood in the United States, its global impact on oil prices and its cruel exposure of America's soft racial underbelly has given India and the world much to reflect on.
The adverse impact of Katrina on President Bush's popularity will be permanent. As a second-term president, he cannot stand for re-election but his Iraq policy, fiscal profligacy and slowness in reacting to Katrina's aftermath will all hurt the Republican candidates' chances against the Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton, the formidable senator from New York. India must seize the moment and the altered mood America finds itself in to forge a long-term relationship with Washington on terms that - unyieldingly - serve our national interest.