Obama Ruins Indian Holiday

by by Simon van Zuylen-Wood

America is feeling unusually sensitive these days. At the tail end of an election season defined so much by national mood and the president's inability to connect with voters, Barack Obama’s 10-day trip to Asia has received more than a few grievances regarding timing. Instead of humbly picking up the pieces of his broken economy, especially after last Tuesday’s shellacking, the president picked up and left town. The common association of India with cheap labor further intensified the outcry: He's going to outsource jobs now?! The White House announced the trip would net private sector business deals worth 50,000 jobs and $10 billion. New York Times columnist Frank Rich speculated that the junket was “hastily re-branded” as a jobs mission to save face.

But in Mumbai, the timing Obama’s weekend arrival raised a whole different set of questions regarding appropriateness. The President arrived on November 6, the fourth day of Diwali, the country's most important Hindu holiday. The annual five-day festival celebrates spiritual enlightenment over evil with ritual lighting of lamps and gleeful firecracker fusillades. Diwali falls after the Monsoon rains and the harvest period. The holiday marks the start of the new business year and usually signals a weekend of big sales for city merchants. But police barricades for Obama’s visit rendered Mumbai’s central arteries either clogged or inaccessible and many tourist attractions were cordoned off. The Diwali patron saint Laksha is the Goddess of Wealth, but for several days, buyer and seller were unable to play their parts.

A photographer who makes 200 rupees (5 dollars) a day photographing tourists at the currently blocked-off Gateway of India monument said to one Mumbai-based news site, “my Diwali is ruined. My meagre [sic] savings will be just enough for my family.”

A shopkeeper in South Mumbai, where Obama’s inner circle of 3,000 booked the entire Taj Hotel, closed his business for the weekend. He told Time, “the last time these roads were so deserted and there were barricades all around was during the 26/11 attacks. The attacks caused us big losses, and this Diwali too there is no business.”

Obama's decision to land first in Mumbai, then to stay in the Taj—which was bombed in the November 2008 terrorist attacks by the radical Pakistani Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba—was meant to “send a message,” according to the President, presumably about the U.S. having India’s back. As was his resolve to address systemic border violence in Kashmir and vouch for a permanent seat for India on the UN security council.

But Obama's symbolic solidarity with India combined with Mumbai’s own paranoiac security concerns over a 26/11 repeat spoiled Diwali for business owners and children alike. In a show of unprecedented Grinchdom, the city’s police spent a good part of their nighttimes running around confiscating firecrackers from children and banned all loud noise after 10 PM, which Time journalist Madhur Singh compared to “banning Christmas trees on Christmas.”