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India’s Republic Day tamasha awaits Obama

US President Barack Obama may get more than he bargained for when he accepted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to be chief guest at the Republic Day parade this year. No doubt, he’ll appreciate the novelty of arriving at Rajpath under the shadow of Lutyens’ magnificent memorial to our colonial past, attended by the brocaded and mounted President’s Bodyguard. And he’ll probably enjoy taking the salute as storied military formations process by – and let’s face it, no one lays on the military pageantry better than the Indian armed forces. He may well be deeply interested in the tanks and missiles that will follow, as will the business delegation accompanying him. 

That’s all usually in the first hour and a half or so. 

But wait, there’s loads more to come. He (and the long-suffering public who buy mostly tickets to watch the military parade) will get to see hundreds of school kids proudly marching by, including those who won bravery awards. Then, he’ll be forcibly reminded of the enormous, bustling diversity of Indian culture as dancers of every hue do their thing down Rajpath. After that he’ll be subjected to the spectacle of floats undulating by in slo-mo – 25 of ‘em if reports are to be believed – showcasing India’s states. And, if the weather permits, this will be rounded off with a fly-past of the fighter aircraft we have managed to acquire despite our labyrinthine defence procurement systems. 

All kudos to him if he’s still smiling after this cultural overdose and inhaling New Delhi’s toxic air for several hours – and there’s a big question mark here since the maximum time a US president spends outside is 45 minutes according to his jumpy security detail. 

Maybe President Obama’s mind will wander back to another January day in Washington D.C. in 2009. That was when he was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. It was a day full of import and history: the first African-American president to take charge of the world’s most powerful country. 

Of course, that Inauguration Day had its complement of drama and symbolism – including the recreation of Abraham Lincoln’s famous train ride from Chicago to Washington and the endless rounds of balls and dinners. But the actual ceremony, televised globally, was notable for its low-key dignity and lasted about half the duration of our annual Republic Day parade. 

The president-designate walked in alone to a fanfare of trumpets and sat on an ordinary steel and black leather chair. Pastor Rick Warren delivered a brief invocation. Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul, sang so beautifully that we forgave her the absurd hat she wore. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriela Montero, in mittens against the cold, and clarinetist Anthony McGill played a (slightly disappointing) composition by John Willams (he of Jaws and Star Wars fame). The chief justice muffed the oath-taking lines but the 21-gun salute followed all the same. Obama made a grim, impassioned inaugural speech. Another song, a benediction delivered with depth and humour, the national anthem and then it was over. 

Had the Inauguration Committee outsourced the ceremony to our Republic Day organisers, Obama would have been enthroned in a gaudy gilt and velvet carved chair at the very least. There would have been march pasts with rousing army bands, prayers of all faiths, dances, many more songs, and all the joyous and extraneous tamasha with which we love to invest our events. 

At any rate, he would have gotten some practice for the challenges that await him on January 26.

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