08 November 2010

Manmohan's dinner diplomacy a hit with Obama

In which the Obamas get to find out who's who in Delhi ...

8 November 2010
The Hindu

Manmohan's dinner diplomacy a hit with Obama

Siddharth Varadarajan

Any doubts Barack Obama might have had about the political pecking order in India is likely to have been settled by the seating arrangement at the private dinner Prime Minister Manmohan Singh threw for the visiting U.S. President at his residence on Race Course Road on Sunday night.

The 50 Indian and 20 American invitees were sprinkled across 10 tables arranged under a high-domed, open tent on the lawns just outside the bungalow once known as “7 RCR” that serves as the Prime Minister's residential camp office.

Among the high-profile invitees were Ministers, politicians, film stars, captains of industry, bureaucrats and the odd academic, environmentalist and even journalist. And at the head table, alongside the two principals and their spouses, pride of place was given to three politicians whose importance for the current and future state of the government is just a notch below that of Dr. Singh: Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and the member of Parliament from Amethi, Rahul Gandhi.

If Ms. Gandhi's place at the high table needs no explanation or comment, Mr. Mukherjee's presence there — especially when his American counterpart, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, was seated elsewhere — sent a clear message about his status as the primus inter pares of senior Ministers, several of whom (S.M. Krishna, A.K. Antony, P. Chidambaram) were also present at the dinner . As for Mr. Gandhi's slot on the high table, Mr. Obama could be forgiven for thinking this was part of some sort of grooming exercise. If I win a second term as U.S. President, he must surely have asked himself, is this the man I might be dealing with in India in 2014?

Whatever the future portends, however, Mr. Obama knows Dr. Singh is the man who calls the shots on the bilateral front for now. The two leaders spent nearly an hour closeted together in a meeting without aides or note-takers, giving the assembled guests a chance to freely mingle over endless glasses of pomegranate and mousambi juice. What they discussed is not known. Shortly after 8 p.m., everyone was asked to get into a U-shaped line by the SPG chief, B.V. Wanchoo. The Prime Minister and the U.S. President then walked in with their spouses. Mr. and Mrs. Obama proceeded to shake hands and exchange a few words with each of those present.

No one from the Left parties appears to have been invited. But the Prime Minister did invite Arun Jaitley and L.K. Advani from the Bharatiya Janata Party, as well as the former National Security Adviser, Brajesh Mishra. The other Ministers present were Sharad Pawar, Kapil Sibal, Salman Khursheed, Anand Sharma and Prithviraj Chavan.

The tables at which guests were seated were named after prominent Indian-Americans or American individuals with a strong India link like Dalip Singh Saund (the first and only Indian to be elected to the U.S. Congress) and Norman Borlaug of the Green Revolution. Live entertainment was provided by the Navy band and the BSF's camel band.

Apart from Mr. Gandhi, the Prime Minister invited several young MPs to the dinner including Meenakshi Natarajan, Priya Dutt, Harsimrat Kaur and Kanimozhi. The Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, suggested Mr. Obama take the time to visit his State, an invitation the U.S. President said he would take up when he was able to find time to travel a bit more in the region. Among the film personalities present were Aamir Khan and Shabana Azmi. Chess wizard Viswanathan Anand was also there, as were atomic energy stalwarts Anil Kakodkar and Srikumar Banerjee. The industrialists present included Anu Agha of Thermax, Ratan Tata, Azim Premji, Swati Piramal and N.R. Narayana Murthy. Top bureaucrats included National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, Principal Secretary to Prime Minister T.K.A. Nair, Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, Media Adviser to Prime Minister Harish Khare and Culture Secretary Jawhar Sircar.

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