- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 4, 2010

NEW DELHI | From schoolchildren and cabdrivers to business leaders and government officials, all of India has been swept up in a near mania in anticipation of President Obama’s visit to the subcontinent, his first stop in a 10-day tour of Asia that begins Friday.

“It has still not sunk in. It is like God’s grace. I think he is pretty young and a youth icon,” said Seher Pathan, a teacher at Holy Names High School in Mumbai, where Mr. Obama is to celebrate Diwali, the “festival of lights,” with schoolchildren on Sunday.

As Ms. Pathan supervised a group of students preparing dance numbers for the festival, the streets near the school in the Colaba neighborhood were being purged of kiosk vendors and beggars as authorities labored to secure — and spruce up — the area for the president’s visit.

“This is the festival time. We make good business during this time. [But] not this year, since we are banned here till the visit is over,” said a slightly annoyed street vendor named Raju, whose kiosk will be closed during the Obama trip.

“His visit will not affect us in any way but for the traffic restrictions and diversions. But we welcome him still in true Indian tradition of hospitality. He is our guest,” said Raj Kumar, one of the thousands of cabdrivers who migrate to Mumbai because of unemployment elsewhere in India.

Arriving in India after suffering a “shellacking” in midterm elections in which Republicans took control of the House and threatened to stall his agenda, Mr. Obama is making his longest foreign tour to date, highlighting the democracies of Asia and their economies.

The trip aims to “open up markets so that we can sell in Asia, in some of the fastest-growing markets in the world, and we can create jobs here in the United States,” Mr. Obama said Thursday. “And my hope is, is that we’ve got some specific announcements that show the connection between what we’re doing overseas and what happens here at home when it comes to job growth and economic growth.”

Mr. Obama “is coming as a salesman this time, not as a statesman. The 2008 aura is missing, and this is more a business trip,” said Namit Agarwal, a 26-year-old Mumbai resident working as a communications manager in a social enterprise. “The magic surely is somewhat missing. When he had taken over, it was like he would change the world.”

The president’s itinerary includes:

• Indonesia, where is he is scheduled to give a public speech praising the island nation’s growing economy and emergent democracy.

• South Korea, where he will attend the Group of 20 economic meeting and have a side meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

• Japan, where he will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation’s 18th annual Economic Leaders Meeting and will hold side meetings with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Australian Prime Minister Julie Gillard.

Mr. Obama will begin his India visit in Mumbai, where he will be staying at the Taj Mahal hotel, a target of terrorists in 2008. Six Americans were among the 166 people killed in the attack on the city.

On Thursday, the Treasury Department targeted the financial and support networks of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), two Pakistan-based militant groups that include the “mastermind” of the July 2006 train bombings in Mumbai who also trained terrorists involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack.

“LeT and JeM have proven both their willingness and ability to execute attacks against innocent civilians,” said Stuart Levey, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. “Today’s action — including the designation of Azam Cheema, one of LeT’s leading commanders who was involved in the 2008 and 2006 Mumbai attacks — is an important step in incapacitating the operational and financial networks of these deadly organizations.”

The Treasury action prohibits U.S. citizens from engaging in any transactions with Mr. Cheema; JeM founder Mohammed Masood Azhar Alvi; Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki, head of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s political affairs department; and Al Rehmat Trust, an operational front for Jaish-e-Mohammed, and freezes any assets they have under U.S. jurisdiction.

The Obama administration has been pressing Pakistan to shut down Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has links to al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, the White House is intent on showcasing its commitment to India, the world’s largest democracy, and U.S. economic engagement with a huge and growing trading partner, the Associated Press reported. The administration also views strengthened ties with India and other Asian democracies as a counterbalance to China’s rising power.

Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington contributed to this report.

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