India prepares for Obama visit

Images of U.S. presidents' trips to India.
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 6, 2010; 12:11 AM

NAILA, India -- Pulling the edge of her red tie-dyed sari over her head, Mohinidevi Gupta said she'll never forget her dance with President Bill Clinton 10 years ago.

"The village women sang songs for him, showered him with marigold and rose petals. We created the mood, and he could not resist. He had to dance with us," said Gupta, a 38-year-old dairy farmer, recalling the day Clinton came to the village of Naila in the northern state of Rajasthan.

Days ahead of his visit, the village was cleaned, women were quickly trained to use computers and a potholed road was repaired and widened. For a few days, even the name of a school was changed, to the Chelsea Private School.

Clinton met with council members, spoke about women's empowerment and danced in the open courtyard of an ornate palace. The villagers called him "Clinton brother" and "King Clinton." Some here still mispronounce his name as "Quintal."

Ahead of President Obama's visit this week, many Indians are remembering the highlights from previous presidential visits: Clinton breaking into an impromptu jig, George W. Bush rolling up his sleeves and playing with a pumpkin, and Jimmy Carter presenting a television to a village that had renamed itself Carterpuri in his honor.

As the ties between the two countries grow deeper, each presidential visit generates exaggerated expectations, color and chemistry.

"The visit of an American president is like an encounter with royalty, and our response to these visits is also typically irrational," said Santosh Desai, a newspaper columnist who writes about social and political anxieties of contemporary India. "We want the unofficial king of the world to acknowledge India as an emerging power. For Indians to swoon, an American president has to say, 'You are special, you are a great country, you are an emerging superpower.' "

Clinton wowed Indians by erasing the suspicions of the Cold War era; Bush did it by ushering India into the elite nuclear club of the world. Obama's charismatic rise to power won him many fans in India, but his subsequent attention to China and pronouncements on outsourcing have left many wary.

"Obama has still to prove to Indians that he is swoon-worthy," Desai said.

The hectic preparations for Obama's visit are taking place during one of the busiest weeks for Hindus, ahead of the holiday of Diwali, the festival of lights, when people celebrate into the wee hours of the morning. Obama arrives the morning after Diwali.

"Why is Obama arriving on our most important festival of Diwali? It is like landing in America on Christmas," said Ritu Kaura of Mumbai, where officials have asked residents to refrain from setting off the usual loud firecrackers this Diwali.

In New Delhi, chefs at the famed Bukhara restaurant are already putting together a special menu in the president's honor with his favorite foods, including a new fish and chicken dish named murgh khurchan. In June, Obama had told India's foreign minister, S.M. Krishna, that he hoped to have an "Obama Platter" created for him, much like the ones named after the Clintons.

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