US President Barack Obama
BARACK Obama, who once listed Mahatma Gandhi as his fantasy dinner guest, claims a personal connection with the world’s largest democracy but many Indians feel he has some way to go to lay claim to their affections.
The US president arrives this week for a three-day visit and faces the unusual challenge of living up to the enormous popularity of his predecessor, George W Bush, who was widely feted in India for ending India’s status as a nuclear pariah.
Back in 2008, Obama’s election was greeted in India with the same enthusiasm as many other countries, with Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh describing his personal journey to the White House as “an inspiration to people around the world”.
But that initial fervor has waned with a series of niggling bilateral spats over tightened US visa regulations, Obama’s opposition to the outsourcing of US jobs and disagreements over India’s nuclear liability policy.
Topping all these issues is that of US support, including military aid, to Pakistan - a key US anti-terror ally.
The subject of Pakistan, which most Indians view as a cradle of state-sponsored terrorism aimed at them, has dominated an online forum set up by the NDTV news channel for people to address messages to Obama.
“Mr Obama, today 1.2 billion people are requesting you to stop funding terrorism. We hope you listen this time,” wrote Mukul Sehgal.
“We welcome you Mr President, but do not play with our emotions or our security by arming Pakistan and then building business with India,” said another poster, Mohan Jayagopal.
Obama first flies into Mumbai in the middle of Diwali, India’s biggest Hindu festival, which is likely to cause some security jitters with its traditional use of ear-splitting firecrackers.
His delegation will reportedly take up the entire Taj Mahal Palace Hotel - the main target of the traumatic 2008 Mumbai attacks by Pakistan-based militants that left 166 people dead.
Security will be exceptionally tight, with only 10 per cent of the hotel’s normal roster of 1,400 employees cleared to work during Obama’s stay.
“The decision to stay in the building that was attacked by militants is in itself a strong statement against terrorism by the US president,” said Ajit Tyagi, a professor of American studies at the Delhi University.
Not all Mumbai residents are happy at the prospect of a security lockdown during Diwali.
“How would you feel if you were trapped in your home in the name of security during Christmas?” said Devkant Somani, 35.
Security will not be an issue for 300 students selected from schools around Mumbai for a “town hall” style event with Obama at the prestigious St Xavier’s College.
“I was so surprised that I didn’t know how to react,” Johan Fleury, a final year arts student, said after hearing he had been chosen.
“I am very inspired by his speeches and now I will get to hear him speak in person,” he told the Hindustan Times.
Obama will also visit the house - now a small museum - where Mahatma Gandhi would stay when visiting Mumbai.
The president, who name-checked Gandhi in his Nobel peace prize speech and had a Gandhi portrait in his US Senate office, has often cited the Indian independence hero as a major inspiration.
Gandhi's great-grandson, Tushar Gandhi, said he hoped Obama, who has been under a lot of pressure at home, would “feel his batteries recharged” after visiting the museum.
“He’s definitely different from other US presidents because he’s broken the mould. The civil rights movement of the blacks in the US and the caste rights movement in India have very distinct parallels,” Gandhi told reporters.
As the first African-American president, Obama is a natural source of inspiration for India’s Dalits, the lowest-caste community previously known as “untouchables”.
“Obama’s visit has triggered hope among the underclass in India,” said Dalit activist Chandra Bhan Prasad.
“The rise of Obama as head of the most powerful country in the world has boosted our self-esteem,” he said.
Obama will get a chance to show off his oratory skills during the second leg of his stay when he addresses the Indian parliament in New Delhi, which was given a face-lift for the Commonwealth Games in October.
His speech will be closely watched in a country which, befitting the world’s largest democracy, sets great store by a politician’s rhetorical skills.
Obama is “the closest thing we have to a thinker-politician anywhere in the world,” leading Indian intellectual and historian Ramachandra Guha said at a packed public lecture in the Indian capital last week.
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