Amid Afpak talk and more, Obamas swing their way through Mumbai (Afternoon Lead)

November 7th, 2010 - 4:26 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama Mumbai, Nov 7 (IANS) Answering questions on issues ranging from Pakistan to the electoral rout, talking to farmers via videoconference and breaking into an impromptu jig, US President Barack Obama got into the groove in more ways than one Sunday as he wound up his 24-hour Mumbai visit and headed to New Delhi for the substantive part of his India trip.

The morning, devoted to meeting farmers and students, was expected to throw up colour and some non-political content. But it also turned out to be one for important policy statements on global issues as Obama took on a host of questions from students at the St Xavier’s College here.

Exhorted by the first lady Michelle Obama to ask “tough questions”, the students drawn from six Mumbai colleges did just that as they asked the US president his views on jehad, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the road ahead after the electoral rout.

India has “the biggest stake” in a successful and stable Pakistan, Obama said from the packed forecourt of the college with its Indo-Gothic architecture as he answered a question on the prickly issue of Pakistan.

He asserted that it was in India’s interest to remove the “distraction” of insecurity in the region when it was moving ahead on the global economic stage.

“Obviously the history between India and Pakistan is incredibly complex and born out of much tragedy and violence. It may be surprising, but I am absolutely convinced that the country which has the biggest stake in Pakistan’s success is India,” Obama, who was criticised by some in India for not mentioning Pakistan’s terror link in his opening address at the Taj Hotel Saturday, said.

He also spoke of the need to “give space and time for Afghan security forces to develop” and reiterated that the US would begin reducing troop levels starting July 2011. “But we will not be removing all our troops.”

On Islam and jehad, he said: “Well, the phrase jehad has a lot of meanings within Islam. It is subject to lot of different interpretations. But I will say that first Islam is one of the world’s great religions and over a billion people practice Islam.”

The president, who also reiterated how Mahatma Gandhi continues to inspire him in his s day to day life, said he did not consider India a rising power but one that had already “risen”.

“The common thread that runs is my determination to take partnership (between the two countries) to an entirely new levelÂ… We believe that India has already risen.”

In remarks that may be seen as a subtle critique of India’s policy towards Myanmar, Obama also said: “There are elections that are being held right now in Burma, that will be anything but free and fair.”

Wife Michelle Obama had earlier candidly spoken to the students about her growing up years and how her family didn’t “have a lot of money”.

“My parents worked hard… My parents couldn’t give us material things,” she said eloquently. But “they taught us that our circumstances didn’t define us”, the wife of the US’ first African American president said.

Before addressing the students, the president interacted with farmers from Ajmer through a video-conference link to understand how India was seeking to bridge the digital divide by reaching technology and services to the grassroots level.

Stating that he wanted to have a glimpse of the IT revolution in rural India, Obama said: “Many of these innovations are because of public and private collaborations between the US and India.”

If the statements struck the right notes, the first couple did so too on a day that had gotten off to a swinging start with the Obamas shaking a leg with children at the Holy Name School.

The couple - the president in shirtsleeves and the first lady in a black and white dress with a hot pink shrug that was replaced by a more formal jacket at St Xavier’s - moved around, shaking hands with the children and stopping to exchange some words.

The dance performances over, Michelle Obama joined the children on the floor, swinging to the beat of a traditional Koli fisherfolk song, quickly catching on as the steps were taught to her. The president was not to far behind either, and happily got up to join the fun, waving his arms and swinging along with the rest.

It was the Kodak moment for the two-day Mumbai trip, the first leg of the India visit that ends Tuesday when the Obamas leave for Indonesia.

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