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Diwali in White House, a low-key affair
Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
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October 29, 2008 10:49 IST

The sixth successive and final Diwali celebration hosted by the George W Bush [Images] administration this year was a low-key affair sans the traditional lighting of the lamp and tables of Indian sweetmeats and drink and hardly stretched for half an hour compared to the previous two-hour events.


This time around too, President Bush--who has not attended any of the previous Diwali celebrations his Administration has hosted--much to the disappointment of the more than 123 Indian Americans largely from the Washington,DC area and a sprinkling from across the country, did not grace the occasion or drop by to light the diya at the function, which was held as always in the Indian Treaty Room of the Old Executive Building. Instead Bush sent Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to represent him.


However, as he has always done, Bush sent greetings to those attending the celebration and Indian Americans throughout the country via a White House printed message which wished them an "uplifting and hopeful Diwali."


"I send greetings to those celebrating Deepavali (Diwali), the festival of lights," he said, noting that "the candle's flames represent the light of hope and the blessings of life".


Bush said, "The light from these candles reminds observers that good always triumphs over evil and we go forward in confidence that it will continue to prevail in the future."


"This joyous festival reminds all citizens of the great blessings of religious freedom and our nation's strong traditions of faith," he added.


Bush also pointed out that "during Diwali, millions of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains around the world will join together setting out 'diyas' and enjoying fireworks in celebration of the festival of lights."


Although Bush did not attend even this final Diwali celebration hosted by his Administration, Dr Piyush Agrawal, the driving force behind urging Bush way back in 2003 to host Diwali in the White House, said, "Let's not forget, and let's always keep in mind, that he was the first-ever US President to host Diwali in the White House, and for that we must always be grateful and indebted to him."


"We, as Indian Americans,  must be proud of President Bush -- a great friend of India -- for having the courage to break away from past barriers and respond to our request to start this magnificent tradition in the White House," he said, and added, "By doing so, he also clearly included us as part of the American mainstream and has made us all so proud to be Americans and part of this great, pluralistic society that incorporates all faiths as does India, a fellow democracy."


Gutierrez in his welcoming remarks -- after being introduced by Brian McCormick, special assistant to Bush who has served as the liaison to the Indian American community and helped organize the event along with Vishal Amin, associate director, Domestic Policy Council at the White House -- declared that "whether or not we are Indian, we can all celebrate the theme of Diwali."


He also went on to praise on the contributions of Indian Americans to American society and mentioned the names of the late astronaut Kalpana Chawla [Images], PepsiCo chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi, Louisiana Governor Piyush 'Bobby' Jindal, and also said Indian Americans like Neel Kashkari -- interim assistant secretary for financial stability and assistant secretary for international affairs at the Treasury Department who made a cameo appearance at the celebration -- were important and respected members of the Administration.


Gutierrez also spoke of how US-India bilateral trade had touched an all-time high of $42 billion in 2007, up by 55 percent from the 2005 figure and he predicted that with the signing of the US-India civilian nuclear deal and the opportunities this accord presents, bilateral trade in nuclear and other clean technologies could also more than double even as trade in other areas continues to grow exponentially.


He gushed about the consummation of the nuclear deal and said it was all thanks to the tremendous vision of the two great leaders of the United States and India, President Bush and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] who had not looked back after deciding to go through with this agreement and said the accord would "help power out economies, rein in the threat of nuclear proliferation, and reduce the world's dependence on fossil fuels."


Gutierrez then, along with the new Deputy Chief of Mission at the Indian Embassy in Washington, Arun K Singh, former Indian Ambassador to Israel, lit the diya. Also representing the Embassy at the celebration was the popular minister, community affairs, Sanjay Sinha.


Singh in his brief remarks, said, "Within a few days of my arrival in Washington,DC, I have witnessed four important events in India-US relations�the signing of the landmark India-US civilian nuclear agreement, an event on the use by US agencies of agriculture data gathered by the Indian Remote Sensing Agency, the launch of two US payloads on the first Indian Lunar Mission and, now, celebration of Diwali," in the White House.


He said the celebration of Diwali in the White House is especially significant, because "it reflects America's diversity and its commitment to pluralism and respect for individual freedoms and rights."


"These are also some of the values than bind our two democracies together and enrich our two countries," Singh said, and also pointed out that "this event is also a tribute to the Indian Americans community -- to its achievements and its enormous contribution to the United States and India-US ties."


As the invited guest were leaving the room after the brief function, each was given a small box of freshly packed sweets by Dr Suresh Gupta, a Maryland physician and staunch Democratic Party activist, who has worked over the years, helping Agrawal to put together the Diwali celebration with the White House staff.


Gupta acknowledged that "yes, we had hoped that President Bush would attend this last Diwali celebration hosted by his Administration in the White House, and although we were disappointed, he did not, we must be grateful to him to being the first US president to start this tradition, which I hope will be continued next year by the new Administration."


"And, I hope the next year we will have a Diwali celebration in the White House, which will be attended by the First Family."


Some members of the community, like Washington,DC-area community activist Dr Sambhu Banik, a strong Republican Party stalwart and a presidential appointee, said he was made to understand that the abbreviated and low-key celebration this year compared to past celebrations was perhaps due to the economic crisis and the upcoming elections and also since -- although unrelated -- President Bush had already hosted a White House reception for more than 200 Indian Americans on October 8 to celebrate the signing of the US-India civilian nuclear deal legislation that had been approved by the US Congress.


Meanwhile, Senator Barack Obama [Images], Democratic presidential nominee, who is leading in the polls over his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain [Images], to be the next chief executive to occupy the White House, also conveyed Diwali greetings in a message to the Indian American community, saying that "in the coming days, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and their friends of all faiths will gather across America and around the world to celebrate the Festival of Lights."


He said, "Much has happened in the world since the last Diwali, and this is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the year past and rededicate ourselves to spreading peace and tolerance in the coming year."


Obama recalled, "Last year, I wrote that Diwali's celebration of the triumph of illumination over ignorance had a special meaning for me. At that time, traveling across America and meeting people of every spiritual and ethnic background showed me that there's much more that unites us than divides us. Now, one year later, I believe this even more strongly."


"Americans, despite our varied background," he argued, "believe that all people are created equal, and that each person should be free to practice or not practice religion as they choose. These beliefs have faced challenges at home and abroad throughout history, but they are the beliefs our nation was founded on, and we always return to them."


Obama pledged that "if I'm elected President of the United States, I will work to renew America's moral leadership in the world," and declared, "This is our time to create change, and I believe that we can and must continue to fight against ignorance and intolerance."


"I hope you enjoy your celebration and renew your commitment to overcoming ignorance. I wish you all the best for a joyous Diwali," he said in his message.

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