11/08/2012 07:45 EST | Updated 01/08/2013 05:12 EST

Stephen Harper: India, Asia The Backup Plan Should U.S. Fall Off Fiscal Cliff

BANGALORE, India - Stephen Harper's first call to U.S. President Barack Obama since his re-election earlier this week was a combination of warm congratulations and neighbourly concern over the fiscal state of affairs across the border.

The prime minister placed the 10-minute call from India where he is at the tail end of a six-day tour.

"The prime minister extended his sincere congratulations to the president on his victory and wished him well on his second term," said Andrew MacDougall, Harper's director of communications.

Like other world leaders, Harper is watching a looming fiscal deadline in Washington warily for negative repercussions back home. The so-called "fiscal cliff" refers to a perfect storm of imminent spending cuts and tax increases, spelling significant reductions to the deficit but also a body blow for the fragile U.S. economy.

A divided Congress must somehow agree to intervene and head off the confluence of fiscal events.

"In the context of the global economic situation, Prime Minister Stephen Harper used the opportunity to convey to the president the importance of the White House and Congress working together to tackle the U.S. fiscal situation," MacDougall said.

The news from Europe over the past week has been no less bleak. The president of the European Central Bank warned that the eurozone — including Germany — remains in a weakened state.

Harper's trip to Asia serves as an opportune — and very visual — response to all the dire news. He made the call shortly after a roundtable discussion with business and education sector leaders from Canada and India, flanked by photographs of the new consulate that's about to be established across the street.

The prime minister has underlined repeatedly over the past five days that the solution to the uncertainty is to look past the usual suspects teetering on their cliffs and nurture other partnerships. India, the world's 10th largest economy with a growth rate still hovering around 5.8 per cent, is a tantalizing partner for Canada.

"We can as a country continue to look at all these worrying developments around the world and fret, but I think what really matters is we're going to have a lot of these kinds of problems for a while, that's my assessment," Harper said earlier in the day, as he attended the opening of an Canadian-managed IMAX theatre opening.

"We've got to focus on the mid-term and keep making the decisions and changes necessary in our own country so that we realize the opportunities to create jobs and growth, regardless of what may happen in the United States, Europe and other economies that have longer term problems."

But whether these new international relationships will bear fruit remains an open question. Canada and India are still slogging their way through negotiations for both a foreign investment protection and a free-trade deal.

The Indian government is in a minority situation, and must struggle to push through economic reforms.

"Are we frustrated? I think I made it clear that we could be going farther and faster," Harper said.

"In my conversations with Indian leaders, they reflect exactly the same thing. But we do have to realize when we deal with India, as opposed to some other countries that we're dealing with in the developing world, this country is a democracy. That means that governments cannot simply dictate a whole set of policy changes to happen the next day."

The prime minister and his wife Laureen managed to fit in a cultural stop as well Thursday, visiting a Hindu temple first established in the ninth century

The couple entered the Sri Someshwara Swamy temple in bare feet, following the temple priest to a sacred shrine inside. The priest placed a scarf and then a garland over Harper's head as a blessing, and gave one of each to the prime minister to put around his wife's neck.

"Now we're married," Laureen Harper giggled.

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