Obama greeted with grandeur in India
NEW DELHI (AP) – President Barack Obama heralded the relationship between the United States and India as a “defining partnership” of the 21st century Monday during a grand ceremony marking his visit to the world’s largest democracy.
Obama’s limousine was escorted to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the palatial residence of India’s president, by guards on horseback. Obama greeted Indian dignitaries, then stood with his hand on his heart as a military band played the U.S. national anthem.
The president spoke briefly, thanking the Indian people for their hospitality and saying he hoped his trip here would strengthen the friendship between the two nations.
“The partnership between the United States and India will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century,” Obama said.
Following the arrival ceremony, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama placed a wreath at Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mohandas Gandhi. As a sign of respect, the Obamas removed their shoes before placing a large white wreath on a flower-covered tablet in front of an eternal flame.
Monday morning’s grandeur kicked off a day heavy on diplomacy. Obama was to meet privately with India’s Prime Minister Manmoham Singh, and the two leaders were then to take questions from the press. Later Monday, Obama planned to speak to the Indian Parliament, with announcements expected on counterterrorism, regional security, clean energy, climate change and economic growth.
Hanging over Obama’s 10-day trip to Asia are heavy election losses at home. On Sunday, Obama promised to make “midcourse corrections” to reinvigorate his embattled domestic agenda in the face of a testier American public and more combative Congress.
Domestic politics came up not in response to a question from a Washington reporter but rather an Indian college student, who told Obama: “It seems that the American people have asked for a change.”
The president agreed that people vented their frustration about the economy by sacking many incumbents. A “healthy thing,” he said, even though his Democratic Party suffered, losing control of one of the chambers in Congress. He said he would not retreat on spending money for energy and education, and offered no specific policy changes.
But then he added that the election “requires me to make some midcourse corrections and adjustments. And how those play themselves out over the next several months will be a matter of me being in discussions with the Republican Party.”
Obama’s words reflected the new political reality, sinking in by the day, that he must give ground to have hopes of advancing the leftover promises of his 2008 campaign. He is increasingly likely to compromise on extending tax cuts not just for the middle class but for the rich, at least temporarily, and will focus more on bringing down the federal deficit.
For all his emphasis on jobs and security, Obama was determined to make Sunday a more casual expression of his engagement in India. And this picture emerged: a rigid but good-spirited attempt by the president to dance with children, who pulled him from his chair to join them and his wife, Michelle, already participating gracefully.
That scene unfolded at a school where the Obamas spoke with students about science projects and helped celebrate the religious festival known as Diwali. Said one boy afterward: “I am feeling very proud.”
The centerpiece of Obama’s day was his stop at St. Xavier College, a Jesuit institution where students waited for hours outside for him in the heat.
Obama has used this town hall format in his foreign travels as a comfortable way to connect with people, although by the time he was done offering advice to the students, he only had room for six questions.
One of the sharper ones was this – “Why is Pakistan so important an ally to America, so far as America has never called it a terrorist state?”
There were some murmurs from the audience.
Obama said it was OK. He knew it was coming.
Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu-majority India have gone to war and still hold deep suspicions. Indian officials accuse Pakistan’s intelligence service of helping orchestrate the Mumbai attacks and say Islamabad has not done enough to crack down on the Pakistan-based extremists held responsible.
Pakistan views India’s ties with the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan as an effort by its old rival to encircle it.
Obama even got a prickly response from some Indian commentators on his first day in the country for failing to mention Pakistan when honoring the memories of those killed in the Mumbai attacks.
To his audience Sunday, he said the Pakistani government understands the dangerous elements that hide and operate within its borders. He also defended the strategic importance of Pakistan to the United States, as he has about India.
“We will work with the Pakistani government in order to eradicate this extremism that we consider a cancer within the country that can potentially engulf the country.” He said the U.S. approach is to “be honest and forthright with Pakistan, to say we are your friend, this is a problem and we will help you, but the problem has to be addressed.”
The president sought to make the difficult case that India has a rooting interest in Pakistan’s success, arguing that stability for its neighbors could help push peace and more economic growth for India. He encouraged peace talks and offered support, but not more. “India and Pakistan have to arrive at their own understandings,” he said.
Obama will spend Monday night in New Dehli before moving onto Indonesia, South Korea and Japan.