Whether It's Counter-terrorism or anti-Islamicism, India Is Thrilled by PM's Visit

NEW DELHI - The authorities aren't taking any chances at the luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel, where Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his 150-person entourage will be staying from today.

NEW DELHI - The authorities aren't taking any chances at the luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel, where Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his 150-person entourage will be staying from today. Two metal detectors have gone up in the lobby, loiterers are asked what room they are staying in and people telephoning from outside the hotel go through a brusque questioning from the operators about who they are calling and why. The Israeli entourage is taking up several floors and dozens of Shin Bet security personnel are already evident everywhere. According to the Hindustan Times, there are at least 40 Shin Bet and Mossad field operatives directly responsible for the premier's safety while the local police will provide general security.

Indian officials explain they have a genuine concern about terror. A week ago, security forces shot to death two members of Jaish el Mohammed, the army of Mohammed, in New Delhi. India believes the group is backed by Pakistan. Last month's terror attacks in Mumbai are still fresh in the mind as is the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001. The Indian intelligence community believes that terrorists could strike in the coming days, against key targets, VIPs or foreigners. Randomly leafing through the local papers from the past weekend shows that terror seems to be the top of the agenda now in India.

The Times of India reports on the interrogation of a Mumbai terror suspect, who is said to have been brainwashed by Lashkar e Toiba, a terror group run from Islamabad. The Hindustan Times reports on five separate attacks in Kashmir in 48 hours, another Lashkar arrest in Delhi and documents revealing a plan to attack the ruling party's headquarters. The Indian Express reports on a Jaish el Mohammed plan to blow up the Mumbai stock exchange, while The Pioneer editorializes in favor of intercommunal solidarity to beat back the terrorist's intentions "to drive a rift through India."

Sharon's visit, the first by an Israeli premier, therefore dovetails nicely with the intensive Indian interest in terror. The mantra on everyone's lips - at least those who support the visit - is "common destiny, similar threats, and the joint struggle of two democratic states against fundamentalist terrorism."

According to the Indian press, a joint statement will be issued during the trip announcing closer ties in the fight agains terror, increased intelligence cooperation between the two countries - including cooperation agreements against hijackings - and there might be a signing of an agreement about technology sales and Israeli training of Indian special forces against suicide attacks. Israel's main goal is to increase defense sales from $1.2 billion this year to $2 billion, government sources said. Sharon goes to New Delhi today and will meet with the top leadership of the government, and on the last day he will be in Mumbai , for meetings with the business community and the Jewish community. He returns to Israel on Friday morning.

Most Indian commentators regard the visit as very important, and some call it "fateful" for the fight against terror. Many note that India has surpassed Turkey as the main customer for Israeli arms exports, that Israel is about to move past Russia as the main weapons supplier to India. And there are those who remember that during the 1999 armed clashes with Pakistan, Israel was the only country ready to sell advanced weaponry to India. "For too long we invested in courting regimes that couldn't manufacture a safety pin," complained columnist Dileep Padgaonkar, praising Israeli defense technology.

Nonetheless, there are those who want to put the visit into perspective: "The great admiration in India for Israel's struggle against terror is part of our anti-Pakistani collective consciousness. For the Indian right, Israel represents the opposite of what Pakistan represents, and it is in effect `negative admiration,'" says Hindu editor Harish Karah. "The identification with Israel is marginal. Interests are the key here," writes Amit Baruah, the diplomatic correspondent for the Hindu Times. And Praful Bidwai, a popular columnist, presents it in its most extreme form: As far as he is concerned, the visit's proximity to 9/11 is nothing more than "cynical exploitation of both sides that together with the U.S. want to demonize their common enemy - Islam."