NEW DELHI: 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 ties.
The president will outline his vision for US-India relations to an audience of around 1,500 young Indians before leaving for Saudi Arabia later Tuesday at the end of an unprecedented second visit to the South Asian country by a serving US president.
He will also host a radio phone in with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he engages with the Indian people in a more informal setting after the pomp and pageantry of Monday’s Republic Day parade.
The two leaders have been at pains to demonstrate their personal rapport during the visit and announced a breakthrough on a nuclear deal that had stalled under India’s last government, although there have been few substantive policy announcements through the course of the trip.
Obama, who hosted Modi in Washington in September, has said the “stars are aligned” to realize the ambitions he expressed when he last visited in 2010 for the two countries to become global partners.
Both sides want a counter-balance to China, with Modi seen as taking a more assertive line on India’s powerful neighbor 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 adviser Ben Rhodes ahead of Tuesday’s event.
“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.”
Rhodes 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 is a secular country but its history is marked with outbreaks of communal violence, and its Muslim minority lags behind the rest of the population in economic status.
– Revive flagging economy –
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 honors 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 his weekly radio phone-in, which 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 traveled to Gujarat once it appeared Modi was likely to end the center left Congress party’s 10-year rule.
The US president will also meet Indian child rights campaigner and fellow Nobel peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi on Tuesday before flying on to Saudi Arabia and pay his respects to new King Salman.
He had been scheduled to visit the Taj Mahal with First Lady Michelle Obama on Tuesday, but the trip was cut short following the death of the former Saudi king.