Straying into the delicate area of tense relations between the nuclear-armed neighbours, Obama insisted India had the biggest stake in a peaceful and stable Pakistan, while urging Islamabad to do more to address extremism.
“My hope is that, over time, trust develops between the two countries, that dialogue begins perhaps on less controversial issues building up to more controversial issues,” he said.
India is extremely sensitive about outside interference in its relations with Pakistan, particularly over the disputed region of Kashmir, and Obama was keen to avoid upsetting his host or angering Pakistan, a key anti-terror ally.
“I am absolutely convinced that the country that has the biggest stake in Pakistan is India,” he told students at the prestigious St Xavier’s College in south Mumbai, addressing a question about US engagement in Pakistan.
“If Pakistan is stable and prosperous that’s best for India,” he added.
He said Islamabad was making progress against what he called the “cancer” of extremism – which is often directed at India and is a recurrent source of tension between the countries – but not quickly enough.
“Now, progress is not as quick as we would like,” he added, noting that many extremists were holed up in the rugged northwestern Pakistani regions close to the Afghan border.
Local commentators and India’s main right-wing opposition party expressed disappointment that Obama had not even mentioned Pakistan on Saturday as he paid homage to the victims of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
A total of 166 people were killed in attacks blamed on the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) extremist group, which is based on Pakistani soil.
Earlier, Obama opened the second day of his state visit to India by dancing with his wife Michelle and local schoolchildren at celebrations for Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, and then headed to New Delhi for the formal part of his visit.
Obama’s remarks on Pakistan did not break new diplomatic ground for the United States – his government has said before that Pakistan must do more on extremism – but were highly significant given their venue in Mumbai.
The remarks came as part of a wider campaign-style event designed for Obama to reach out to India’s youth, before the starchy formality of his official state visit to New Delhi, which started later yesterday.
“The United States does not just see India as a rising power, we believe India is already risen,” Obama said, noting his host’s dynamic economy, youthful population and rising strategic clout in Asia and beyond.
Earlier, Michelle Obama was winning Indian hearts, dancing with local children, even coaxing her more reticent husband to join in.
Her earlier efforts on Saturday had hit newspaper front pages. “When Michelle Got Into the Groove,” said the Hindustan Times
Town hall events are used to capitalise on Obama’s biography, political skills and appeal to young people, though the idea that the president’s character alone can forge foreign policy progress has been somewhat devalued.
The Indian media yesterday hailed a new closeness between New Delhi and Washington, which many said reflected the rise of India as a dynamic and increasingly open economy.