MUMBAI, (Reuters) – President Barack Obama paid tribute on Saturday to victims of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, but the first day of his visit to India ran into immediate controversy as he made no reference to Pakistan.
Pakistan-based militants killed 166 people in a 60-hour rampage through India’s financial hub, gunning down their victims at luxury hotels, a train station and a Jewish center. India says elements in the Pakistan state were behind the attacks.
“We visit here to send a very clear message,” Obama said after meeting victims’ families at the luxury sea-front Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the iconic landmark where TV images showing it in flames after battles between militants and commandos came to symbolize the massacre.
“In our determination to give our people a future of security and prosperity, the United States and India stand united.”
Obama’s trip aims to boost ties and seal big-ticket business deals to secure jobs and exports days after voters punished his Democrats in mid-term elections.
Obama will also visit Indonesia, South Korea and Japan on a 10-day tour that will see Washington push to prevent countries unilaterally devaluing currencies to protect their exports, a top theme at the Group of 20 heads of state meet in Seoul next week.
Saturday’s speech highlighted the diplomatic tests for Obama. Indians want a strong statement against Pakistan for fostering militants, but Washington must tread a fine line between appeasing New Delhi and supporting U.S. regional ally Islamabad.
The Mumbai attack was launched by militants who arrived by boat from Pakistan, coming ashore near the Taj. It increased tension between the nuclear foes, who have been to war three times since independence from Britain in 1947.
TV stations were abuzz with most Indian commentators surprised about the softness of the speech.
“This was a guarded statement,” strategic analyst Mahroof Raza told the Times Now news channel. “No mention of Pakistan conveys that Pakistan is key to their (United States) Afghan policy … and, therefore, Pakistan will not be brought to book.”
Across town, police took the precaution of removing coconuts around Mani Bhavan, where Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi stayed while in Mumbai and which now serves as a museum that Obama will visit on Saturday.
Later on Saturday he will attend a meeting with hundreds of U.S. and Indian business leaders. He arrives in New Delhi on Sunday.
Obama’s Saturday-to-Tuesday trip to India started just four days after his Democratic party sustained big election losses tied to the weak economy, raising some doubts over how much the trip can yield given the pressures at home.
But Obama clearly outlined that his goal was to strike “billions of dollars in contracts that will support tens of thousands of American jobs,” and stated his intent to “reduce barriers to United States exports and increase access to the Indian market.”
“It is hard to overstate the importance of Asia to our economic future,” Obama wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times on Friday.
“It can be tempting, in times of economic difficulty, to turn inward, away from trade and commerce with other nations. But in our interconnected world, that is not a path to growth, and that is not a path to jobs. We cannot be shut out of these markets.”
On the agenda will be lucrative defense ties. The United States has held more military exercises with India in the past year than any other country, and U.S. firms Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp are bidding for a $11 billion deal for 126 fighter jets.
But first, Obama will have to counter Indian perceptions he has relegated Asia’s third-largest economy behind rivals China and Pakistan and has not recognized its growing global weight.
Washington faces a host of hurdles, including Indian worries that signing defense pacts — which are necessary for the U.S. arms sales to go through — may land New Delhi in a wider entanglement with the U.S. military.
A civil nuclear deal with the United States was signed in 2008 to great fanfare, but it struggled through parliament and now the accord has sparked criticism that U.S. companies in the sector will be discouraged to invest due to high liabilities.
Also, an increase in U.S. visa fees, a ban on offshoring by the state of Ohio and the Indian IT industry’s portrayal in campaign publicity as a drain on U.S. jobs have set a frosty tone in India.
“It has become so difficult to process visas these days and that is hurting us a lot,” said Siddesh Apraj, an employee of India’s second-largest outsourcer, Infosys Technology Ltd.