MUMBAI — When Michelle Obama, the first lady, introduced her husband to a group of college students here Sunday, she urged them to ask him “tough questions.” They did.
“What is your take or opinion about jihad?” came the first question for President Obama at a town hall-style meeting at St. Xavier’s College. Next up: queries about spirituality, Gandhi, the American midterm elections and his government’s negotiations with the Taliban.
Finally, there was the question Mr. Obama confessed he had been waiting for: Why hasn’t the United States labeled Pakistan “a terrorist state?”
“Pakistan is an enormous country; it is a strategically important country,” Mr. Obama began carefully, before meandering around to a defense of his administration, in which he said its policy is to “work with the Pakistani government in order to eradicate this extremism that we consider a cancer within the country that can potentially engulf the country.”
The diplomatic response was indicative of the fine line Mr. Obama has walked on the topic of terrorism while in India. On Saturday, his first day here, he faced criticism in the local press when he paid homage to the victims and survivors of the 2008 terrorist siege in Mumbai without mentioning that the gunmen were Pakistani or suggesting, more broadly, that some groups in Pakistan pose a terrorist threat.
While the students at St. Xavier’s, a 140-year-old Jesuit institution in this pretty seaside city, were exceedingly polite to Mr. Obama — in interviews many said they admired him — they seemed unafraid to get straight to the point, even if Mr. Obama did not always get straight to his.
“Well,” the president said, tackling the opening question about jihad, “the phrase jihad has a lot of meanings within Islam and is subject to a lot of different interpretations.”
He carefully avoided saying he is opposed to jihad — commonly interpreted to mean “holy war” — and instead said, “I think all of us recognize that this great religion in the hands of a few extremists has been distorted to justify violence towards innocent people that is never justified. And so, I think, one of the challenges that we face is how do we isolate those who have these distorted notions of religious war.”
Sunday’s session, in a sunny outdoor courtyard surrounded by Gothic buildings, came on the second day of a 10-day, four-nation swing that will also take Mr. Obama to Indonesia, his boyhood home for four years, South Korea and Japan. He is spending the longest stretch, three days, in India. He left Mumbai later Sunday for the capital, New Delhi, where he was expected to address Parliament on Monday.
While Mr. Obama was dancing around questions — figuratively speaking — on Sunday, he also participated in some literal dancing, showing off some moves that, to the delight of photographers traveling with him, are likely to provide iconic images of his trip. Mr. Obama’s short performance came after student dancers doing a show for him implored him to join in.
The White House has cast the Asia trip as an economic mission that will also strengthen American diplomatic ties with emerging democracies and established ones; on Sunday, Mr. Obama also toured a small technology expo here with the aim of showcasing American partnerships with India in expanding agriculture.
Officials billed the college town hall as a chance for Mr. Obama to connect with ordinary Indians. But for a president still bruised from the trouncing his party took in last week’s elections, the appearance was also a chance to come before the kind of sympathetic crowd he now has trouble attracting at home.
“We call him the world king, king of the world,” said Chetman Rawal, 20, who studies commerce at the college. “I think he will change the world.”
It seemed a common sentiment. In interviews, students and faculty here uniformly spoke kindly of Mr. Obama, praising everything from ‘’his cuteness,” as one female student said, to his basketball skills, to his respect for “Gandhian principles.” On the question of how he applies those principles, Mr. Obama sounded a note of humility.
“I’m often frustrated by how far I fall short of their example,” he said, referring to Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, all of whom he said he is studying. “But I do think that at my best what I’m trying to do is to apply principles that fundamentally come down to something shared in all the world’s religions, which is to see yourself in other people.”
Indians followed the American elections closely, said Father Lawrie Ferrao, director of the institute of communications at the college. But he said people here are more interested in another election — the one Mr. Obama himself ran in 2008.
“The admiration for him with regard to his campaign, his optimism, his charismatic movement and charismatic leadership, that I think has not faded off yet,” Fr. Ferrao said. As to the outcome of the midterms, he gave an explanation Mr. Obama himself might have offered: “He was given an economy which was unsustainable.”
The president himself, when questioned on the races, pledged some “mid-course corrections and adjustments,” , though he was not specific about his plans. But in his commentary on Gandhi, he offered a lesson he had learned, one that perhaps provides some insight into how he might be feeling these days.
“On this journey,” Mr. Obama said, “you’re going to experience setbacks and you have to be persistent and stubborn, and you just have to keep on going at it. And you’ll never roll the boulder all the way up the hill, but you may get it part of the way up.”