Obama wraps up India visit with town hall meeting
US President Barack Obama will host a town hall-style meeting in India on Tuesday, seeking to stress the shared values of the world’s largest democracies as he wraps up a visit aimed at reinvigorating their sometimes tense ties.
The speech to around 1,500 young Indians comes at the end of an unprecedented second visit to India by a serving US president, underscoring Obama’s determination to reinvent a relationship marred by a bitter diplomatic row in late 2013.
Although the trip has been light on substantive policy announcements, Obama and new Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a breakthrough on a nuclear deal that had stalled under India’s previous government and have been at pains to demonstrate their personal rapport.
Obama, who hosted Modi in Washington in September, has said the “stars are aligned” to realise a vision he outlined for the two countries to become global partners when he last visited in 2010.
Both sides want a counter-balance to China, with Modi seen as taking a more assertive line on India’s powerful neighbour than the previous government.
“People have long looked at this relationship and seen the fundamentals in place for a really, really close partnership, and yet it’s been a challenge in translating that into outcomes,” said Obama’s advisor Ben Rhodes ahead of Tuesday’s event at a New Delhi auditorium.
“I think the president will want to speak to how do we tap into the energy and the support in both countries for the relationship and turn that into positive progress on the issues that matter in people’s lives.”
Modi has promised to revive India’s flagging economy to improve the fortunes of its 1.2 billion people, many of whom still live in dire poverty.
On Monday he vowed to banish the country’s reputation as a tough place to do business, promising a competitive tax regime and an end to excessive red tape in a pitch to US executives delivered alongside Obama.
Under the previous left-leaning Congress government, investors frequently complained about a hostile business climate in India, frustrated by bureaucracy and corruption.
Earlier Monday, Obama became the first US president to attend India’s Republic Day parade, drawing cheers from spectators who turned out in large numbers despite rain and heavy security.
The invitation to the annual celebration is one of the biggest honours the country can bestow on a foreign leader and underscores the importance that Modi places on US ties.
The Indian premier extended a personal invitation to Obama, a measure of the turnaround in relations after a tense row involving the arrest and strip-search of an Indian diplomat in New York in late 2013.
Modi has gone out of his way to welcome Obama, breaking with protocol to greet him on the tarmac and inviting him to co-host a radio phone-in that will be broadcast on Tuesday evening.
The atmosphere of bonhomie between the two leaders is all the more remarkable given that Modi was persona non grata in Washington only a year ago.
His election in May 2014 was a potential headache for the US, which had blacklisted the Hindu nationalist for more than a decade after deadly communal riots in Gujarat when he was state chief minister.
He was only brought in from the cold last February when the US ambassador travelled to Gujarat once it appeared Modi was likely to end the centre-left Congress party’s 10-year rule.
Rhodes also said the US president would use Tuesday’s speech to stress the importance of “diversity as a democratic value” in the majority-Hindu nation.
India’s Muslim minority lags behind the rest of the population in economic status and there have been several major incidences of communal violence in recent years.
The US president had been scheduled to visit the Taj Mahal with First Lady Michelle Obama on Tuesday, but his trip has been cut short to allow him to travel on to Saudi Arabia and pay his respects to new King Salman.