NEW DELHI — President Barack Obama’s experience at India’s Republic Day celebration may have felt a little like his two presidential inaugurations.
He watched the two-hour parade of military hardware, marching bands and elaborately dressed camels from a rain-soaked, open-air reviewing stand.
The experience was somewhat similar to his inaugurations in Washington. But it was different in some respects, too.
Obama watched both inaugural parades from an enclosed, glass-fronted reviewing stand that temporarily erected on the north side of the White House. The weather both times was dry and biting cold. There were no tanks or other military hardware doing a slow roll up Pennsylvania Avenue.
No dressed-up camels, either.
But there are always plenty of marching bands.
Republic Day commemorates the anniversary of when India’s constitution came into force in 1950.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Obama to be the celebration’s chief guest, which an Indian TV commentator said is one of the most significant honors India can bestow upon a foreign leader.
Obama is the first American president to attend Republic Day.
He sat between Modi and Indian President Pranab Mukherjee.
On television, Obama was seen smiling as a group of children in blue uniforms danced and clapping after another performance. Michelle Obama, who accompanied her husband, also smiled at a dance performed by a big group of children in bright jumpsuits.
White House reporters who logged the nearly 7,500 miles to New Delhi to provide real-time coverage of Obama’s attendance at the parade arrived to find out that some of them wouldn’t be able to.
India, the world’s largest democracy, gave the small “pool” of U.S. reporters that travels with the president a distant view of him during the two hours that he spent watching the colorful procession.
They also were not allowed to bring some of the most essential tools of 21st century journalism: the BlackBerries, iPhones and laptop computers they rely on to file quickly.
Security even confiscated ball-point pens. Cell phone service was also limited.
Reporters who didn’t venture out to the parade site hung back at their temporary workspace to watch the festivities unfold on TV and take notes.
The unspoken political rule that political leaders should avoid putting anything on their heads apparently has no place in India.
Modi showed up at the parade wearing a safa, a traditional celebratory headdress that some Indian men wear for festivals and special occasions.
Modi’s had a large, red pleated circular plume and an orange scarf running down his back.
Obama stepped out of his armored limousine and into the rain bare-headed.
The president once said that “you don’t put stuff on your head if you’re president.” But he broke his rule last year by posing in a tiara with tiara-wearing members of a Girl Scout troop from Tulsa, Oklahoma, that participated in a White House science fair.
The photo, taken by the official White House photographer, has circulated widely on the Internet.
The significance of an American president viewing the elaborate parade won’t be lost on India’s contentious neighbors — Pakistan and China.
Until recently, relations between India and the U.S. were lukewarm at best.
Just look at some of the earlier Republic Day guests of honor: Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito in 1968 and 1974, Bulgaria’s Todor Zhivkov in 1969 and Tanzanian politician Julius Nyerere in 1971.
In those days, India was largely aligned with the former Soviet Union while Washington’s closest regional ally was Pakistan — India’s bitter rival.
Back then, India would not have dreamed of inviting a U.S. president as the guest of honor. And, if asked, an American president may have politely declined.
But the chill is gone and India and Washington are warming up to each other.
Associated Press writer Muneeza Naqvi wrote this report with contributions from Darlene Superville in Washington.