President Obama made some big-ticket business announcements on the first day of his visit to Mumbai, the first stop on his 10-day Asia tour, but it’s the second day of lighter moments with the city’s youth that’s likely to be remembered here in India’s commercial capital. The president and First Lady Michelle Obama danced with schoolchildren Sunday morning—a world away from his party’s electoral drubbing in the U.S.—and charmed college students at a town hall meeting at the city’s premier St. Xavier’s College, where Obama, invoking Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, reiterated that the U.S.-India relationship was “indispensable” to the 21st century.
Those meetings overwhelmed some of the shakier impressions of the previous day, when some Indian business leaders were less than enthusiastic about business deals Obama announced, and some local commentators were upset that Obama failed to mention Pakistan during a tribute to the victims of 2008’s 26/11 attacks. But Obama’s trademark optimism about the potential for innovation and democracy to improve people’s lives served him well in the town hall meeting. That optimism is palpable in India’s “Maximum City,” but its youth do not often get to hear it expressed so well and directly.
Obama’s first visit to India, pitched as a way to boost U.S. exports and jobs, is also expected to help reboot a relationship that had flourished under former President George W. Bush, who brokered a landmark civil nuclear deal between the two countries. While most Indians were enthusiastic about Obama during his presidential campaign, the Democrat’s position on outsourcing is often seen as detrimental to Indian business. One Indian commentator told a TV network he was happy Republicans had done well in the midterms since it meant a more trade-friendly Congress. Recent reports suggesting that U.S. officials may have received prior information about the Mumbai attacks have also soured feelings here, too.
At the town hall meeting, students questioned Obama sharply on U.S. support of Pakistan, considered by India as a haven for anti-India groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was behind the Mumbai attacks. He responded with characteristic diplomacy. “What we have tried to do over the past year is to engage aggressively with the Pakistan government that we want nothing more than a stable, prosperous Pakistan. That we will work with Pakistan to eradicate extremism,” he said, adding that progress hasn’t been “as quick as we’d like.”
Gallery: Obama in India
Earlier in the weekend, Obama visited Gandhi’s home and museum here as Martin Luther King did 50 years ago, and addressed American and Indian business officials at a trade summit. Obama announced deals valued at $10 billion, which he said would create about 54,000 jobs in the U.S. He is also expected to move on lifting controls on high-tech exports, including removing some Indian defense organizations from export blacklists, and press for India’s membership to nuclear-related agencies including the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Despite the standing ovation he received from Indian businessmen, Obama didn’t exactly exceed expectations. Indian IT companies are upset over a recent hike in visa fees and by some U.S. states banning some outsourcing, and neither seems likely to be reversed soon. Obama was careful to avoid using the word outsourcing at the summit, acknowledging instead the caricature of India as a country of “call centers and back offices.” Still, some Indian businessmen were skeptical and suggested Obama was more interested in the audience at home. What’s in it for us, asked Rahul Bajaj, chairman of the Bajaj Group and former president of the Confederation of Indian Industries. Editor and commentator Vinod Mehta complained that the visit seemed to be about “not what Mr. Obama can do for India but what India can do for Mr. Obama.”
Others were more positive, pointing to Obama’s constraints at home—high unemployment and an electoral setback. Both Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani and Anand Mahindra of Mahindra and Mahindra noted that their companies have created thousands of jobs in the US, too. General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, meanwhile, praised Obama for talking up globalization during a downturn, and pushed back at India for its slow pace in opening its markets to foreign investment in sectors like retail.
Obama’s visit to the city is not the first by a U.S. president—former President Bill Clinton was here in 2000—but it’s the first time a president has made Mumbai the first stop. That decision was intended to send a message that the U.S. and India stand united against terrorism, Obama said in a speech at the Taj hotel after meeting survivors of the 26/11 terrorist attacks. “Mumbai is a symbol of the incredible energy and optimism that defines India in the 21st century,” he said. “And ever since those horrific days two years ago, the Taj has been the symbol of the strength and resilience of the Indian people.”
The city’s thousands of small retailers, thriving with the spike in urban middle-class consumption, put out signs saying, “We welcome Obama but not FDI in retail.”
Some residents might question whether a five-star hotel can symbolize a city where more than half the residents live in slums, but businesses near the Taj hotel were generally supportive of the Obamas' decision to stay there. “He’s a pretty decent gentleman,” said Ashok Daryanani, owner of a men’s wear store, adding in an erroneous version of the rumor about the cost of Obama’s trip, “And he’s spent $200 million to come here, we can’t take that lightly.” Another small shopkeeper said the loss of revenue caused by the closure of roads on a holiday weekend was nothing compared with the economic damage suffered by the tourist-dominated area after the 11/26 attacks. “People were afraid to come to this area and to the Taj,” said Gulab Syed, who has been selling silver jewelry here for 12 years, “Now that the president of the U.S. has come and gone safely, maybe [the tourists] will start coming again.”
Such an appreciative reception isn’t a given in Mumbai. Obama landed in a city preoccupied by scandal and celebration. The state chief minister had just been found embroiled in a land scam, and only Obama’s impending visit appeared to save him, temporarily, from a summary sacking. This is also the weekend of Diwali, the country’s largest Hindu festival, marked by lights, firecrackers, and outsize spending and eating. In the run-up to the visit, Mumbai residents were mostly talking about the fortification of south Mumbai—which contains the old colonial town and walled city—worrying that the security arrangements would ruin the peanut vendors’ holiday takings at the Gateway of India near the Taj and spoil the Diwali fun (firecrackers were reportedly banned in that neighborhood). There was also controversy over perceived American slights to state officials (said chief minister was asked for personal details for security clearance to attend Obama events). Meanwhile the city’s thousands of small retailers, thriving with the spike in urban middle-class consumption, put out signs saying, “We welcome Obama but not FDI in retail.”
But in a city where no marketing opportunity is squandered, the Obama T-shirts and memorabilia were soon selling fast, as were Obama books. A promotional campaign was launched for a soon-to-be released Bollywood movie, titled internationally With Love to Obama. The film, ironically, is about an Indian-American who loses everything in the recession and comes to India.
Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar is editor of Time Out Mumbai.