NEW DELHI — President Obama laid out a sweeping vision for the future of U.S.-India relations here Tuesday, pushing India on human rights issues while asserting that the relationship between the two countries could become one of the “defining partnerships” of the 21st Century.
Obama, speaking to an enthusiastic crowd of 1,500 at Siri Fort Auditorium here in a speech aimed at India’s youth, spoke of the promise of India’s young people, highlighted the shared values between the two countries, and spoke at length about human rights issues, including religious tolerance and equality for women.
“India and the United States are not just natural partners — I believe that America can be India’s best partner,” Obama said.
Obama came here for a three-day visit after being extended an unprecedented invitation to be the country’s chief guest at its annual Republic Day parade. The invitation came as Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi move to revitalize a relationship between the two countries that had stagnated in recent years as the U.S. focused on other Asian countries.
“I realize that the sight of an American president as your chief guest on Republic Day would have once seemed unimaginable. But my visit reflects the possibilities of a new moment,” Obama said. “As I’ve said many times, I believe that the relationship between India and the United States can be one of the defining partnerships of this century.”
Obama cited some of the modest gains that came out of his trip, including a breakthrough on nuclear issues progress toward combatting climate change, new business investments and an agreement on weapons production.
As the U.S. sees India as a ballast against China, Obama said he sees a greater role for India in the Asia-Pacific as a stable democratic force.
“With power comes responsibility,” Obama said. “In this region, India can play a positive role in helping countries forge a better future, from Burma to Sri Lanka, where today there is new hope for democracy.”
Large swaths of his speech were dedicated to issues that human rights groups hoped he would stress with the Indian government and public, including freedom of expression, human trafficking and the rights of women. He often held up the constitutions of both countries for guiding principles on tolerance.
“Under the surface of the world’s largest democracy and all that jazz,” said John Sifton, the Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, “there’s some startlingly repressive actions going on.”
Obama conveyed many of the issues in stark personal terms by evoking his race, wife and daughters and humble background, and conceded that America still has progress to make on issues of class and gender.
Obama spoke of his grandfather, a cook for the British Army in Kenya and that of first lady Michelle Obama, which included both slaves and slave owners. He held up his wife as a paragon of a strong woman, and said that she and the couple’s two daughters keep him grounded.
“If nations really want to succeed in today’s global economy, they can’t simply ignore the talents of half of their people,” he said.
The president also talked at length about religious freedom and tolerance. The past relationship of Modi, a Hindu nationalist, with the U.S. has been fraught with distrust based on his past human rights record. The State Department revoked Modi’s visa in 2005 on grounds that he had violated religious freedom by not doing enough to stop Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 while he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat. More than 1,000 people were killed.
“My faith has at times been questioned —b y people who don’t know me — or they’ve said that I adhere to a different religion, as if that were somehow a bad thing,” Obama said.
White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, who is chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff and executive director of the council, held a roundtable on women’s empowerment with members of India’s civil society community during the visit. The participants discussed topics including human trafficking, violence against women and education.
The meeting ended with “the clear understanding that our countries would continue to work together to make real progress,” Jarrett said.
The relationship between Modi and Obama has blossomed since September, and the two men now see one another as friends and partners in the renewed alliance.
In a country where about two-thirds of the population is under 35, Obama said it is up to that generation to move the country forward and strive to meet the ideals enshrined in the constitution.
“Your Constitution begins with the pledge to uphold “the dignity of the individual.” Our Declaration of Independence proclaims that “all men are created equal.”
For Obama, India has long represented the intersection of two of his heroes — Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi. Obama visited the memorial that holds Gandhi’s ashes Sunday. he and Modi’s relationship was sparked on a visit that included a stroll around the King memorial in Washington.
“On a more personal level, India represents an intersection of two men who have always inspired me,” Obama said. “And those two great souls are why we can gather here together today, Indians and Americans, free and equal.”