There were elaborate floats and colorfully attired children dancing, ornate floral displays and lots of soldiers, tanks and missiles. Even a camel-mounted military force complete with its own marching band.
And for the first time in history, a U.S. president in a place of honor to witness all of the grandeur that is India’s Republic Day, which celebrates India’s transformation from colony to independent nation and the adoption of its constitution in 1950.
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 first lady Michelle Obama, was honored at a State Dinner Sunday night at Rashtrapati Bhaavan, India’s vast presidential palace, and then watched the main event, the boisterous two-hour parade through the streets of New Delhi, on a drizzly Monday morning.
The crowd erupted when the Obamas emerged from their limousine. Obama, seated in a viewing stand decorated with garlands between India’s 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 on the eve of the parade. “We will honor the generations of Indians who built this nation through toil and tears and iron will.”
No U.S. president had ever been invited to India for the event. Past guests have included Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Mohammad 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 in 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.”
The parade was dominated at first by soldiers, most dressed in brightly colorful uniforms with safa turbans, which have a fan-shaped decoration attached to the top, as well as battle tanks, missiles and missile launchers, jeeps and weapons-locking radar.
India has been spending billions of dollars to upgrade its military equipment, but many of the items shown in the parade are from the former Soviet Union or Russia, which remains one of India’s top providers of military hardware.
“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 the Brookings Institution, “but it’s also a display of India’s military might.”
It also included kitschy floats from every state and daredevil motorcycle stunts in which riders balance themselves in unusual formations, such as a peacock. Obama reacted to the motorcycles, one of the highlights, with a grin and a thumbs up.
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Thousands of people crammed the five-kilometer route that passed the India Gate, an archway commemorating the 70,000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the British army during World War I. Most sat in green bleachers, clapping, smiling and waving, including four members of Congress who flew to India with Obama.
Obama does not usually spend much time outside in public while overseas because of security concerns, but he attended the parade for the full two hours. Security was so tight that reporters were told not to bring cameras or phones. Even ballpoint pens were confiscated.
Obama’s attendance at the parade and events underscored work to repair strained relations between the two countries.
Personally, Obama and Modi appeared to enjoy each other’s company, their budding relationship dubbed “Mobama” by local media.
Many Indians had watched with excitement as New Delhi spruced up for the American leader in the days leading to his visit. Several people held up signs about Obama at the parade, including one that said, “We heart Obama.”
“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 covered every aspect of Obma’s trip, from the black presidential limousine dubbed “the Beast car” to what the first lady will wear.
“Why should he mean anything to India?” asked Prerna Malhotra, 25, a Delhi schoolteacher. “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.”