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Ash, Ambanis on guest list for Obama dinner for PM

Last updated on: November 23, 2009 08:53 IST
Aziz Haniffa reports from Andrews Air Base on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's arrival in the United States and plans for the high-powered State dinner on Tuesday.

Precisely at 13.02 local time on Sunday Air India 001 carrying Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and his high-powered delegation for the first State visit in the Obama presidency by a foreign leader, taxied down the runway of the Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

Minutes after the touchdown at the air force base where the US president's aircraft Air Force One is also stationed, Chief of Protocol Ambassador Caprica Marshal along with Colonel Steven Shepro, joint base commander at the Andrews Air Force base, and India's Ambassador Meera Shankar went inside the aircraft to escort the prime minister and his wife Gursharan Kaur on the tarmac. Also present was Ambassador Shankar's husband Ajay Shankar.

Waiting in the reception line were US Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer, Robert Blake, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, Aneesh Goyal, acting senior director for South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, Ambassador Arun Kumar Singh and wife Dr Maina Singh, Brigadier Bhupesh Kumar Jain, defence and military attache, Commodore Monty Khanna, naval attache and Air Commodore Jasbir Singh Walia, air attache.

A US Air Force band played the national anthems of both countries as dozens of colourfully dressed children, who started cheering when Dr Singh stepped down, waived the tri-colour at the prime minister.

Two African American children, Misty Handerson and Troy Johnson, both ten-year-olds and from the Minor Elementary School at DC Northeast, presented bouquets to the prime minister and his wife.

Also on hand to welcome him were 90 Indian-American community leaders and Indian embassy officials and their families and children. As he had done when he travelled on a State visit in July 2005 at the invitation of then US President George W Bush, the prime minister walked towards the crowd who had gathered to welcome him and standing behind a railing that bounded the arrival centre of the air force base and shook hands with many of them, greeting them all with a traditional Namaste.

People started cheering loudly and greeting the prime minister with 'Jai Hind' and 'Bharat Mata Ki Jai'. So excited were the children that one of them even asked for Dr Singh's autograph and the prime minister gladly obliged him.

After a few minutes, he was ushered into the limousine and along with his delegation, left in a convoy of limos to Washington, DC, about an hour's drive to the Willard Intercontinental Hotel where he will stay during his visit.

Accompanying the prime minister are External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, National Security Adviser M K Narayanan, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia, India's Climate Change negotiator Shyam Saran and Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao.

Dr Singh's official programme begins on November 23 when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, Energy Secretary Dr Stephen Chu, who is also a Nobel Laureate, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will call on him at his hotel.

At 11.15 am, a delegate of eight senior US lawmakers from the US House of Representatives will call on him for an hour-long meeting, after which he will leave for the US Chamber of Commerce where he will address members of the Chamber and the US-India Business Council, where welcoming remarks will be delivered by Chamber President Tom Donohue and USIBC Chairman Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO, PepsiCo.

He will then return to his hotel suite and meet with a delegation of the US Senate leadership including the co-chairs of the US Senate India Caucus, Democrat Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas.

The prime minister is also slated to call on House Speaker Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California on Capitol Hill.

In the evening Dr Singh will proceed to the Council on Foreign Relations for an hour-long interaction with its members at 5.30 pm, for what has been billed as 'A Conversation with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh', jointly organised by the Council and the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, where he will welcomed by Lee Hamilton, the former Democratic Congressman from Indiana, erstwhile chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and also co-chair of the 9/11 Commission; Ambassador Roemer served as a member of that Commission. Presiding over the event will be CFR President and veteran American diplomat Richard N Haass.

The next day, November 24, at 9.15 am, Dr Singh and Gursharan Kaur will arrive at the South Lawn of the White House and be welcomed by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. They will be accorded a ceremony replete with full honours where among others, over 150 Indian-American leaders and community activists from across the country are expected to be present having been provided tickets by the Indian embassy.

In addition, more than a dozen Indian-American senior officials of the Obama administration working in the White House, will also be present with other US officials from the State Department, the Pentagon, and other government agencies.

After the prime minister reviews a guard of honour, Dr Singh and President Obama will make opening remarks at the dais flanked by senior Cabinet officials of both countries, after which both leaders will go into the White House for their one-on-conversation.

After an expected hour-long conversation, both President Obama and the prime minister will hold a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House, after which Dr Singh and his delegation will leave for the State Department for a luncheon co-hosted by Vice-President Joseph Biden and Secretary Clinton.

The same evening will be the gala State dinner which has been moved from the East Room -- which can accommodate a maximum of about 140 guests to the South Lawn (under a massive tent reminiscent of when President Bill Clinton hosted a state dinner for then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the fall of September 2000 which had a record 700-plus guests) -- because of the clamour of the elite in Washington society, US lawmakers, and the high and mighty in the Indian-American community, particularly the high-rollers in the Obama campaign, not to mention Hollywood and Bollywood stars to attend this first State dinner hosted by the President and the First Lady.

Among the guests will be senior Indian Americans serving in the Administration led by the likes of Under Secretary of Agriculture Rajiv Shah, who has been nominated for the position of Administrator of the US Agency for International Agency by Obama, Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal, Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, Associate Director of Public Engagement Kalpen Modi, Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Rahul 'Richard' Verma, White House senior counsel to the Office of Management and Budget Preeta Bansal, Associate Director for Intergovernmental Affairs Nick Rathod, and Obama's friend, former roommate and campaign fundraiser Vinai Thummalapally, whom the president appointed as US ambassador to Belize.

At last estimate, the guest list was said to include over 400 and all of those who had been invited had been virtually ordered to be tight-lipped. One White House official told that Aishwarya Rai and husband Abhishek Bachchan "are definitely coming," as are "the Ambanis."

Also, on the guest list, according to speculation in newspapers like The Washington Post are Indian-American media celebrities like CNN's Sanjay Gupta and Fareed Zakaria. There are reports that Republican Louisiana Governor Piyush 'Bobby' Jindal, America's only Indian-American governor, had also been invited to the event.

Also confirming their attendance to were the current and co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans in the House of Representatives like Democratic Representatives Gary Ackerman of New York, Jim McDermott of Washington state though one source said it is unlikely that erstwhile Caucus GOP Co-Chair Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina who screamed 'You lie,' at President Obama as he was delivering an address to a Joint Session of Congress on Health Care some months ago, will be invited.

On the Senate side, Congressional sources told that influential Senators like John F Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and the ranking Republican, Richard Lugar, as well the co-chairs of the US Senate India Caucus, Dodd and Cornyn.

The president of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, Dr Vinod 'Vinny' Shah, a close friend of US House Majority Leader Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland has been invited.

Sources also said other likely Indian-American invitees would include Obama campaign fundraisers like Shekar Narasimhan, Vinod Khosla, Kamil Hasan and Sunita Leeds and another of Obama's longtime friends and supporters from his state senator days in Chicago, Ann Kalayil.

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, who is running for attorney general of California, and who has often been dubbed 'the female Obama,' some sources said, was also a likely invitee.

On Wednesday, November 25, around 10 am, Prime Minister Singh was scheduled to hold a press conference for the visiting Indian media and journalists representing Indian-American newspapers at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel. In the evening Ambassador Shankar will host a community reception in the prime minister's honour for which the Indian embassy has already received 678 RSVPs!

Invitees to the reception at the Marriot Wardman Hotel in uptown Washington, DC, had been advised to begin arriving at 4 pm even though the prime minister is not scheduled to arrive till 6 pm.

Sources said Dr Singh wants to personally greet every guest which will present another logistical and security challenge and could take over two hours which meant the evening could stretch beyond 9 pm.

Dr Singh and his delegation depart on November 26 at 0515 hours from the Andrews Air Force Base for Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference.

Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife at the Andrew airbase in Washington, DC | Photograph: SnapsIndia

Aziz Haniffa at Andrews Air Base, Maryland, USA