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In India, Obama faces questions on U.S. relations with Pakistan

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 8:44 PM

MUMBAI - President Obama was challenged Sunday by an Indian university student to explain his administration's unwavering support for Pakistan, exposing in a single question the central challenge to his goal of strengthening the U.S. relationship with India.

During a town hall forum at St. Xavier's College here, a student rose to ask Obama why he does not refer to Pakistan as a "terrorist state," drawing some gasps from the rest of the audience. Obama told the crowd that he had expected the issue to come up, and he answered by challenging the several hundred students present to view a country against whom India has fought three major wars, and was the staging area for a devastating terrorist attack against this city, from a new perspective.

"We want nothing more than a stable, prosperous and peaceful Pakistan," Obama said. "Our feeling has been to be honest and forthright with Pakistan, to say, 'We are your friend, this is a problem and we will help you, but the problem has to be addressed.' "

The question came two years after gunmen trained in Pakistan landed in a fisherman's village on the city's waterfront and killed more than 170 people in a days-long siege. The question highlighted the problem Pakistan presents for Obama as he seeks to strengthen trade, military and cultural ties with one of the world's fastest-growing democratic economies.

Obama commemorated the Nov. 26, 2008, massacre on his arrival Saturday when he laid a white rose at a memorial to the victims and spoke at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and Tower, a main target of the attack. But he infuriated many Indians by not mentioning Pakistan in his tribute, reinforcing the impression here that Obama cares less about India's grievances than he does about defending a key partner in the Afghanistan war.

The issue will probably come up again Monday, Obama's final day in India, when he appears with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before the U.S. and Indian media and later addresses the Indian Parliament. Obama could well face questions over his position on Kashmir, a religiously mixed region in the subcontinent's northwest that both India and Pakistan claim.

How he portrays the U.S. interest in Pakistan, whose weak government is defending itself against its own Taliban insurgency, will probably determine whether his visit here succeeds in convincing Indians that he is serious when he says, as he did Sunday, that "the U.S.-India relationship will be indispensable in shaping the 21st century."

"It may be surprising to some of you to hear me say this, but I am absolutely convinced that the country that has the biggest stake in Pakistan's success is India," Obama told the students. "I think that if Pakistan is unstable, that's bad for India. If Pakistan is stable and prosperous, that's good. Because India is on the move."

A sense of neglect

Encounters with young people have become staples of Obama's travels abroad, a nod to his appeal as a symbol of U.S. progress and tolerance. And in few countries will young people make more of a difference in the short term than in India.

More than half of India's 1.2 billion people are under 30 years old, a promising market for U.S. goods and the foundation of a workforce driving the country's technical innovation.

The Indian public's view of the United States rose after Obama took office. But it has fallen back to its pre-election level amid a sense that he has neglected India's interests to win favor with Pakistan and with China, a rival economy.

While interested in U.S. policies that directly affect their region, including the details of Obama's endgame strategy in Afghanistan, some of the high-achieving students he met with Sunday also seemed well aware of his political troubles at home. One asked whether the candidate who made "change" a watchword of his 2008 campaign intends to adopt some himself after the midterm elections.

Obama acknowledged that the result "requires me to make some midcourse corrections and adjustments," although he did not elaborate on what those might be. He said only that they would unfold over months and come after consultation with Republican leaders.

"I do think that one of the challenges that we're going to be facing in the United States is - at a time when we're still recovering from this crisis - how do we respond to some of the challenges of globalization?" he continued, touching on an issue at the center of his economic message to the four Asian nations he will visit on this trip.

"I think that there's going to be a tug of war within the United States between those who see globalization as a threat and want to retrench, and those who accept that we live in a open, integrated world which has challenges and opportunities," suggesting that the debate might be sharpest within his own party.

Visiting a high school

After a day talking trade and export contracts on Saturday, Obama and the first lady, Michelle, devoted their last morning in Mumbai to celebrating Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

In short, a morning of public diplomacy involved dancing.

At the Holy Name High School in an affluent Mumbai neighborhood, Obama and the first lady surveyed student projects on global warming and green villages.

Then the fun began.

The first couple entered an auditorium decorated with flowered wreaths and strings of lights. Children in vibrantly colored, traditional Indian clothes handed them candles, which they used to light the Diwali altar.

Then they sat back for a display of tightly choreographed dancing, which drew praise from the president.

When the kids beckoned the Obamas to join them, only the first lady jumped up and quickly learned the elaborate movements. The president joined her soon after, but did not prove to be the same quick study.

"Those of you who had a chance to see Michelle dance - she was moving," Obama later told the students at the town hall.

St. Xavier's College sits in the colonial center of Mumbai, a 140-year-old Gothic campus of high green-stone walls and arched windows shaded by palms.

Students took seats around a stage at the center of a large courtyard formed by the interior walls of the school. Shade was scarce, but large fans blew toward the center of the courtyard, where Obama took the stage, his white shirt open at the neck and sleeves rolled up.

"King and Gandhi made it possible for all of us to be here today - me as a president, you as a citizen of a country that's made remarkable progress," Obama told them, referring to Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. "Now you have the opportunity and the responsibility to also make this planet a better place."

The half-dozen questions Obama took after his opening remarks were a mix of political and philosophical.

The first student asked him for his definition of jihad, the Muslim concept of struggle. Obama used his answer to call for religious tolerance.

"One of the challenges we face is how do we isolate those who have these distorted notions of religious war," he said. "It's a major challenge here in India, but it's a challenge obviously around the world."

Another young man asked how government could "triumph over materialistic values." And a young woman noted how Obama frequently cites Gandhi, India's independence hero, in his speeches. She asked the president how he employs Gandhi's principles in his everyday life.

Under the searing sun, Obama paused before answering.

He said he is "constantly studying" the life and work of King, Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi.

"I'm often frustrated by how far I fall short of their example," Obama said. "But I do think that at my best, what I'm trying to do is to apply principles that fundamentally come down to something shared in all the world's religions, which is to see yourself in other people."

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