"The last time these roads were so deserted and there were barricades all around was during the 26/11 attacks," says L. Ahmed of the stretch of roads leading to Mumbai's iconic Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel, which hosts President Barack Obama on his two-day visit to the city that began Saturday. A shop assistant at a souvenir store nearby, Ahmed says it's ironic that Obama started his India state visit by paying homage to the victims of the 26/11 attacks. "The attacks caused us big losses, and this Diwali too there is no business," he says, offering to join me on a stroll around the area where the security arrangements for the President's visit have kept shoppers away and forced most shops to remain shut.
Obama began a ten day, four nation Asia trip (which will also include Indonesia, South Korea and Japan) that is focused on expanding markets for American exports by commemorating the more than 170 victims of the November 26, 2008 terrorist massacre that paralyzed the usually teeming financial capital of India. "To those who have asked whether this is intended to send a message, my answer is, simply, absolutely," Obama said, after he and the First Lady visited the memorial at the hotel. "Ever since those horrific days two years ago, the Taj has been the symbol of the strength and resilience of the Indian people. So we use our visit here to send a very clear message that in our determination to give our people a future of security and prosperity, the United States and India stand united."
Yet on this day, many locals on the streets of Mumbai didn't seem to agree with the President, who seemed to have assumed an "extraordinarily warm welcome" he referred to in his speech at the Taj. In addition to the inconvenience of having to put up with travel and access restrictions, residents are sore about having to curtail their Diwali celebrations. "It's wonderful to have him come and speak to the youth but on Diwali weekend?" Mumbai-based actor Rahul Bose said, speaking for many in Mumbai when he appeared on TV channel NDTV 24X7. "Surely somebody on the Indian side's to blame for agreeing."
Diwali is the biggest, brightest, loudest Indian festival, which celebrates the victory of good over evil, and this year it fell on a Friday, giving everyone a long festive weekend of shopping and bursting crackers. But the President's visit has seriously hampered the festivities in the hip, wealthy South Bombay area of India's financial capital, nicknamed SoBo, where he will spend most of his time in Mumbai.
Here, the markets were empty on Saturday - the day after Diwali, and the day of the President's arrival - at a time that would normally witness the year's biggest orgy of consumerism. Bursting of firecrackers has been banned in some areas on Saturday and Sunday - which is like banning Christmas trees on Christmas - until the President leaves for New Delhi Sunday afternoon. Marine Drive, the 3-km sea-facing boulevard in south Mumbai, was isolated, as car access was restricted from time to time during the day. Just the night before, thousands had thronged here to let off firecrackers and witness fireworks that stretched into the horizon.
Later in the day, Obama did his best to prove to a dissatisfied electorate back in the U.S. that his trip overseas will help produce jobs at home. "As we look to India today, the United States sees the opportunity to sell our exports in one of the fastest growing markets in the world. For America, this is a jobs strategy," he said in a speech to the U.S.-India Business Council. "There is no reason this nation can't be one of our top trading partners." To that end he announced a series of trade deals and also said the U.S. plans to reform longstanding export controls that stem from past administrations' concerns about India's nuclear industry. The changes include relaxing controls on India's purchase of so-called "dual use" technologies that could be used for civilian or military purposes, and removing a few of the last remaining Indian companies on a so-called "entities list" of groups that face restrictions on doing business in the U.S.
Still, among the few out in the streets of south Mumbai on Saturday, Obama's fans were a distinct minority. Graphics designer Nissar Vitil was part of a crowd of a couple of dozen onlookers who had gathered at Regal cinema, a well-known landmark on Obama's route to one of the venues for the day's events. "I came from office at lunch time. I'll wait for 2-3 hours and see if I can catch a glimpse of Obama or at least his cavalcade," he said. "Obama is a good man. I wouldn't come for [Bollywood superstar] Shah Rukh Khan, but I have come for him," he smiled.
"Our police are working so hard," said Navin Seth, a banker, pointing to the men and women in khaki, trying to keep some obdurate shoppers from breaking the barricades. "It's sad they can't spend their Diwali holidays with their families." Sitting under a lamp-pos with a toddler in her arms, home-maker Shanti Devi seemed an unlikely part of the Obama-spotting crowd. "We don't know why everyone else is gathered here. I am waiting for the bus. They have closed some of the roads so there's a huge problem," she explained.
- with reporting by the Associated Press