India’s military forces marched past President Obama and India’s president and prime minister in great waves of color on Monday morning.
Crimson-clad border troops with identical mustaches, astride camels decked out in gold braid and multicolored pompoms. A bagpipe and drum corps in scotch plaid and leopard skin. Sikh regiments in dress turbans, their starched fringes fanning out like gold lamé pie plates. A formation of combat helicopters that thudded past, releasing drifts of marigold petals.
On one level, of course, it was just a parade. But it served as a fitting geopolitical metaphor as well. Russian-made Sukhoi-30 fighter jets roared over, so low that the scent of jet fuel settled over the V.I.P. section, and Russian T-90 tanks trundled by, a reminder of India’s ties to Moscow dating to the Cold War.
Yet it was Mr. Obama in the seat of the chief guest, the first American leader to do so. In the 65 previous parades, the chief guest has twice been Soviet, once Russian, twice Yugoslav, three times French, twice British, once Chinese. Even Pakistan has been invited. Mr. Obama’s acceptance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation this year was seen here as a great tribute to India, a sign of the country’s arrival on the world stage.
“The crowd is getting understandably excited and ecstatic at the arrival of the motorcade of the president of the United States, Barack Obama,” the parade announcer said when Mr. Obama’s Cadillac pulled up. At that point, a military policeman in a red-fringed turban gestured sternly for spectators to remain seated, but they ignored him completely, scrambling atop their chairs for a view. Two men unfolded a banner that read “I [heart] Obama.”
Mr. Obama’s presence required extensive security preparations, as he has not spent such a long stretch outdoors in public in a foreign country during his six years in office. As is typical for outdoor events, he was seated behind bulletproof glass shields. Indian security was so tight that ballpoint pens were confiscated from reporters covering the parade.
Republic Day is a major holiday in India, commemorating the day in 1950 when the post-partition democratic Constitution came into force. Seats are provided for 125,000 people, according to the Defense Ministry, which arranges the event. Spectators began streaming through the streets toward the parade ground at dawn, some wrapped in wool blankets against the chilly rain. Though elaborate, snaking barriers had been erected along the routes leading to the site, the crowds quickly spilled over them and surged into the road.
“I came because of Obama,” said Vinay Kumar, 32, who had woken at 4:30 a.m. to catch a bus from his home on the city’s outskirts. “We hope he and Modi together will help grow the economy. And help us to get H-1B visas to visit America.”
“I am not looking for a permanent visit,” he added, “just one year or two.”
Many said they came out of pride. Indian crowds adore military spectacle, a fact that British colonial powers recognized in the 19th century, adopting the fabulous displays of the maharajahs who preceded them. George Curzon, the British viceroy, at one point “issued instructions that European officials were not outshined by the Indian princes who came wearing their jewelry,” said Rana Chhina, who heads the Center for Armed Forces Military History in New Delhi.
For all his socialist leanings, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, retained those flourishes when he introduced the Republic Day parade, in addition to a display of heavy weaponry directed toward Pakistan. As members of a Sikh regiment passed on Monday, swinging their arms so vigorously that they seemed in danger of dislocating them, the announcer remarked in a tweedy British accent that “this regiment has the reputation of creating terror among the enemy.”
Monday’s parade included all-women contingents from the army, navy and air force. Mr. Obama seemed particularly impressed by a display of motorcycle trick-riding, showing a thumbs-up. There were also many reminders that India has been the world’s largest consumer of Russia’s arms industry, particularly after a series of flyovers by MIG-29 and Su-30 fighter jets.
Mr. Obama and the American delegation have made it clear they want to compete for India’s defense dollars, renewing the defense pact between the two countries on Sunday and agreeing to cooperate on aircraft carrier and jet engine technology. They also agreed to work on joint production of small-scale surveillance drones.
That did not mean that Russia was about to cede a lucrative, longtime market. Sergei K. Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, made a point of visiting last week, just before Mr. Obama arrived, to discuss joint production of a light utility helicopter and to resolve disagreements about a long-delayed fifth-generation fighter aircraft.
But as he left the parade on Monday, Sunil Mudgal, 39, an army officer, said he saw India’s relationships beginning to shift, in part because the United States’ “outlook toward the neighboring countries, especially Pakistan, has changed.”
“Ten years back, we were only reliant on Russia,” he said. That morning, added his wife, Anuradha, the couple’s young son could think of nothing but Mr. Obama, who was seated across the parade route from the family. “He asked me,” she said, “’If I wave to him, will he see me?’”