There were elaborate floats and colorfully attired dancing children, ornate floral displays and lots of soldiers, tanks and missiles. Even a camel- mounted military force complete with their own marching band.
And for the first time in history, a U.S. president sat in a place of honor to witness all of the grandeur that is India’s Republic Day.
President Barack Obama served as the chief guest of one of this country’s most patriotic holidays, a reminder of the inextricable tie the world’s two largest democracies share despite a sometimes tense relationship.
Obama, accompanied by the first lady, was honored at a State Dinner Sunday night at Rashtrapati Bhaavan, India’s grand presidential palace, and then watched the main event, a parade through the streets of New Delhi, on a drizzly Monday morning.
Obama, seated in a viewing stand decorated with garlands between and President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, bobbed his head during much of the parade, smiling often and chewing gun.
“I am deeply honored to be the first American president to join you in celebrating India’s Republic Day,” Obama said in a toast at the State Dinner. “We will honor the generations of Indians who built this nation through toil and tears and iron will.”
No U.S. president has ever been invited to India for the event. Past guests have included Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Mohammed Khatami. Leaders from China and Pakistan were invited prior to their country’s wars with India. Last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the guest.
“What India has done historically is to invite countries that are either in its neighborhood that it has very obvious strategic interests or very carefully selected representatives of countries,” said Ashley Tellis, a former National Security Council staffer and senior associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “And this is the first time they've invited the United States to take part in these celebrations.”
Smaller Republic Day events took place around the nation to commemorate the 66th Republic Day, but they could not compare to the parade in New Delhi.
It’s a combination of Soviet-style parade with marching soldiers, tanks and flatbed trucks displaying missiles and a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade with kitschy floats from every state and dare devil motorcycle riding in which riders balance themselves on motorcycles in unusual formations like a peacock or with guns. Obama responded with a grin and a thumbs up.
The first hour was dominated by soldiers, most dressed in brightly colorful uniforms with safa turbans that have a fan-shaped decoration attached to the top, marching in unison as well as battle tanks, missiles and missile launchers, jeeps and weapons-locking radar rolled down the street. Helicopters flew overhead.
India has been spending billions of dollars each year to upgrade its military equipment, but much of the hardware show in the parade are from the former Soviet Union or Russia, which remains one of India’s top providers military hardware.
The parade kicks off with the prime minister laying a floral wreath at a memorial to unknown soldiers and two minutes of silence and the president unfurling the national flag. A 21-gun salute follows. The parade ends with a flyover by the Indian Air Force jets and helicopters carrying the orange, white and green flag.
“This obviously (is) a celebration of India’s democracy...it’s long history of its constitution,” said W.P.S. Sidhu, a senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings India Centre in New Delhi and Brookings Institution, “but it’s also a display of India’s military might.”
The second hour of the parade was devoted to the elaborate floats designed to represent something of each state - rice, the fishing industry, love, temples. People in bright colors danced and sang.
Thousands of people crammed the five kilometer route from Rajpath or Kingsway from the presidential palace down past India Gate, an “Arc-de-Triomphe” like archway commemorating the 70,000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the British Army during the World War I. Most sat in green bleachers, clapping, smiling and waving. Also in the crowd: four members of Congress who flew to India with Obama aboard Air Force One, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. wearing a multi-colored scarf to protect herself from the rain.
Millions more who have the day off from work and school gather around their televisions to watch the parade televised nationally, including on the state-run channels.
Republic Day, one of a trio national holidays celebrating India’s transformation from colony to independent nation, honors the adoption of the constitution in 1950 The other holidays are Independence Day in August and Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday in October.
The two presidents did not travel to the parade together for security reasons. Obama does not usually spend much time outside in public overseas because of security challenges, but was at the parade for two hours. Security was so tight that reporters were not allowed to bring cameras and phones. Even ballpoint pens were confiscated.
The United States and India have had a sometimes tenuous relationship over the years, especially during the Cold War. But Obama and Modi are working to renew the ties. In India their budding relationship was dubbed “Mobama.” One person held a large yellow sign “We heart Obama.”
India invited Obama after a successful meeting between Obama and India’s popular prime minister at the White House in September in which administration officials .
Obama has remained fairly popular in India, especially in big cities, and many Indians had watched with excitement as New Delhi tried to spruce up for the American leader in the days leading to his visit.
“This means the entire world to India,” said Udhav Gupta, 20, a student at Hindu College in Kolkata. “He is leader of the United States of America, the biggest power in the world.”
Others watched in disdain as the media here has covered every aspect of his trip from his black limousine dubbed the Beast car to what the first lady will wear.
“Why should he mean anything to India, first of all?” Prerna Malhotra, 25, a Delhi school teacher. “He’s just a president of a particular country. I don’t think he coming to India should be such a big deal. I think he should just be back in his own country and manage his finances and economics.”
Kuni Takahashi in New Delhi contributed to this report.