Barack Obama will become the first US president to be chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade on Monday, a day after hailing a new era of friendship between the world’s biggest democracies.
The invitation to the annual celebration of the birth of modern India is one of the biggest honours the country can bestow on a foreign leader and underscores the growing closeness between Obama and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Security was tight ahead of the parade, a colourful display of India’s military might and cultural diversity showcasing everything from tanks and state-of-the-art weaponry to camels and traditional dancers.
The parade celebrates the adoption in 1950 of the Indian Constitution — the day that India became a republic — three years after gaining independence from Britain.
The show-stopper is the Border Security Force on their brightly-decorated camels, and the parade also includes carnival-style floats and a human pyramid atop moving motorbikes.
Modi, who issued the invitation via Twitter saying he hoped to “have a friend over”, will watch the parade with Obama from behind a bulletproof glass enclosure.
Roads were closed around the area, which has been declared a no-fly zone, and snipers will be positioned on rooftops along the route, where 15,000 new CCTV cameras have been installed.
Grey skies and light drizzle failed to dampen the mood of spectators who had gathered hours before the two-hour spectacle was due to begin.
“This day is all about patriotism and I’m lucky to be a part of it,” said 20-year-old college student Ajith Kumar, there with his parents and younger sister.
“The fact that we have a guest like Obama has made it all the more special.”
– Bear-hug greeting –
Obama’s presence as chief guest represents a remarkable turnaround in his relationship with India’s new leader, who only a year ago was persona non grata in Washington.
He began his visit on Sunday with a bear hug from Modi, later saying their new “friendship” reflected a natural affinity between the two countries, which are both seeking a counter-balance to a rising China.
“I’m honoured to be the first American president to attend this celebration, as well as the first president to visit India twice,” said Obama.
The two leaders on Sunday announced a breakthrough on an agreement to provide civilian nuclear technology to India that was signed in 2008 but had been held up by US concerns over liability in the event of a nuclear accident.
They also extended a defence pact and agreed to enhance cooperation on climate change. But the focus was on the warming of relations after a tense diplomatic row in late 2013, rather than specific policy announcements.
Modi’s 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 then US ambassador Nancy Powell travelled to Gujarat once it appeared Modi was likely to end the centre-left Congress party’s 10-year rule.
Nonetheless Modi has gone out of his way to welcome the US president, breaking with protocol to meet him on the tarmac when he arrived on Sunday and inviting him to co-host a radio phone-in.
The two leaders will on Monday make a joint address to company bosses in an event organised by the US-India Business Council.
Modi is seeking to attract global business to manufacture in India to fulfil his election pledged of creating enough jobs for the burgeoning young population.
US Ambassador Richard Verma said before Obama’s arrival that trade was now running at around $100 billion a year — five times the level of a decade ago — and saw no reason it couldn’t grow by another five times.
Obama had been scheduled to visit the Taj Mahal with First Lady Michelle Obama, but his trip has been cut short to allow him to travel on to Saudi Arabia.