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Power, politics dazzle Obama's state dinner

Last updated on: November 25, 2009 13:41 IST
Scores of Indian American politicians, administration officials, media personalities and activists were among the 320 guests at the first state dinner of the Barack Obama presidency in honour of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Gurcharan Kaur, which had been moved from the East Room -- which can accommodate a maximum of about 160 guests to the South Lawn (under a massive tent reminiscent of when President Bill Clinton hosted a state dinner for former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the fall of September 2000 which had a record 700 plus guests).

The dinner, which had been moved to the South Lawn because of the clamor 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, also had among the invitees some of India's leading industrialists and entrepreneurs, including Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, Sunil Bharti Mittal, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Deepak Parekh, Preetha Reddy and Chanda Kochchar. All of them were also present at the arrival ceremony of Dr Singh and his wife at the White House, which was moved from the South Lawn to the East Room because of inclement weather.

Also, omnipresent as ever was the high profile Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, who was seated on President Obama's table along with Senator John F Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, US Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer, and David Geffen. Earlier, in the day, at the luncheon hosted by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Prime Minister at the State Department, Nooyi was at the head table seated next to Dr Singh.

Other higher profile Indian American CEOs present were Farooq Kathwari, chairman and CEO of Ethan Allen and his wife Farida; and Rajat Gupta, chairman emeritus of McKinsey and Company and his wife Anita.

An Obama campaign high-roller, venture capitalist Kamil Hasan, chairman and CEO of Hitek Ventures, who had been invited but couldn't make it since he was away in India on business, nor could his wife Talat, since she was under the weather.

Seated on First Lady's Michelle Obama's table were Nobel laureate Dr Amartya Sen, the Prime Minister's daughter Amrit Singh and Congressman Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, while vice chairman of the Indian Planning Commission Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia was at the Vice President Biden's table and film director Manoj Night Shyamalan was seated at the table of the vice president's wife, Dr Jill Biden.

Leading the array of Indian American politicians was Republican Louisiana Governor Piyush 'Bobby' Jindal and his wife Supriya, Iowa State Senator Swati Dandekar and her husband Arvind, Minnesota State Senator Satveer Chaudhary, Kansas State Senator Rajiv Goyle, and Ohio State Senator Jay Goyal.

The senior Indian American officials in the Obama administration, included Under Secretary of Agriculture Rajiv Shah, who has been nominated for the position of Administrator of the US Agency for International Agency by Obama, Principal Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal, Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, Associate Director of Public Engagement and popular actor Kal Penn, White House senior counsel to the Office of Management and Budget Preeta Bansal, Aneesh Goel, Acting Senior Director, South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, who also sat in on the President's Oval Office meeting with Dr Singh, and took down notes, Rajesh De, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Sonal Shah, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director Office of Social Innovation, Eboo Patel, member of President's White House Inter-faith Council, Anil Kakani, currently with US Treasury handling India, and Obama's close friend and former roommate and campaign fundraisr Vinai Thummalapally, whom the President appointed as US Ambassador to Belize.

Indian American media celebrities at the banquet included CNN's Dr Sanjay Gupta, Fareed Zakaria -- who was also at the Biden-Clinton luncheon -- Washington Post managing and associate managing editors respectively Raju Narisetti and Rajiv Chandrasekeran.

Longtime gay and lesbian activist Urvashi Vaid, led the field of Indian American activists, who also included the fighter on behalf of taxi-drivers, Bhairavi Desai, Maneesha Kelkar of Manavi, and Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian American Leading Together.

San Francisco District Attorney, Kamala Harris, who is running for Attorney General of California, and who has often been dubbed 'the female Barack Obama,' and is also a close friend and early supporter of Obama for president, was also in attendance with her sister Maya Harris, and so was the president of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, Dr Vinod 'Vinny' Shah, who is a close friend and neighbor and is the consulting physician to House Majority Leader Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland -- in which state Shah and his family run the largest practice -- who had got himself an invite thanks to Hoyer.

Other prominent Indian Americans at the dinner included Dr Deepak Chopra and wife Rita, Dr Vishaka Desai, president of The Asia Society, author Jhumpa Lahiri and husband Alberto Vourvoulias, Conductor Zarin Mehta, Dr Rachakonda Prabhu and wife Dr Lata Shete Prabhu, former Assistant Solicitor General Sri Srinivasan and his sister Srinija Srinivasan, one of the founders of Yahoo, and Sant Chatwal,

The current and former 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, Republican Ed Royce and their spouses were also in attendance, although 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, was not among those invited.

On the Senate side, besides Kerry, Senator Richard Lugar, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came with his wide, as did US Senate India Caucus co-chair Senator Christopher Dodd.

Besides Ahluwalia, the senior Indian officials accompanying the Prime Minister were also at this first state dinner of the Obamas. They were External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, National Security Adviser M K Narayanan, Shyama Saran, Special Envoy to the Prime Minister on Climate Change, Sam Pitroda, chairman of the Knowledge Commission, Gaitri Kumar, Joint Secretary (Americans) MEA, Nirupama Rao, Foreign Secretary Pankar Saran, Joint Secretary to the Prime Minister Jaideep Sarkar, and Harish Khare, media adviser to the Prime Minister.

Also present Indian Ambassador Meera Shankar and the deputy chief of mission at the Indian embassy, Arun Kumar Singh.

On the US side, senior politicians also included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Hoyer, and cabinet officials present were Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Attorney General Eric Holder, National Security Adviser Jim Jones, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Director of Office of Management and Budget Peter Orzag, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Chairof Council of Economic Advisers Christina Romer, Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, Director of National Economic Council Larry Summers, Senior Adviser to the President Valerie Jarrett, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake, and White House Communications Director Valerie Jarrett.

Representing the Pentagon and the military brass included Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James E Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Besides Jindal, Governors Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania, Bill Richardson of New Mexico, were also on hand to greet the Prime Minister.

Other notables included Washington, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, GE CEO Jeff Immelt, Honeywell chairman and the co-chair of the US-India CEO Forum David Cote.

Hollywood was represented by Steven Spielberg, Blair Underwood and Jeffrey Katzenberg of Dreamworks while Bollywood had Oscar winner A R Rahman -- of Slumdog Millionaire fame -- who also provided part of the entertainment that also included Jennifer Hudson, Kurt Elling, Marvin Hamlisch, the National Symphony Orchestra and the President's Own United States Marine Band.

Image: The State Dinner in Washington, DC

Photograph: Mohammed Jaffer -- SnapsIndia   Text: Aziz Haniffa

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC