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NaMo has warm water, Barack has red wine

By Aziz Haniffa/Rediff.com
Last updated on: September 30, 2014 12:25 IST
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Modi presented Obama with a richly silk-covered special edition of Mahatma Gandhi's interpretation of the Bhagvad Gita, and recordings of Dr Martin Luther King's speech when he visited India in 1959 and also a specially framed photograph of Dr King when he visited Rajghat.

Modi had scrupulously researched and selected these gifts for Obama and more gifts would be presented on Tuesday during their summit for both the President and the First Family.

Aziz Haniffa/Rediff.com reports from Washington, DC.

Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with President Barack Obama at the White House.

The first meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Barack Obama -- where the latter had him over for a private intimate dinner as it was described by the White House -- was essentially a getting to know each other interaction even though the broad contours of some substantive issues were discussed and how India and the US could cooperate not only bilaterally, but also regionally and globally.

Both leaders agreed to pen a joint editorial in a leading American newspaper to appear on Tuesday, September 30, which had been inspired by Modi's op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last week.

The prime minister presented Obama with a richly silk-covered special edition of Mahatma Gandhi's interpretation of the Bhagvad Gita, and recordings of Dr Martin Luther King's speech when he visited India in 1959 and also a specially framed photograph of Dr King when he visited Rajghat.

Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Syed Akbaruddin briefing the media on the dinner meeting, said Modi had scrupulously researched and selected these gifts for Obama and more gifts would be presented on Tuesday during their summit for both the President and the First Family.

Image: President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House.

First Lady Michelle Obama was not present at the dinner although the White House had earlier indicated that it would be a dinner hosted by the Obamas.

Also, contrary to rumours and some reports that the White House would bow to the sensitivities of the guest and that the menu would be strictly vegetarian and that no alcoholic beverages would be served, also turned out to be incorrect, since the main course on the dinner was crisped halibut and it was washed down with red wine -- Shafer Chardonnay 'Red Shoulder' 2010, which is hardly vintage.

At dinner at the White House.

Modi, at the outset, put everyone at ease by saying that he didn't want to embarrass anybody by the fact that he was fasting and that they should continue with their dinner while he sipped on warm water, even though as protocol would dictate a plate was kept in front of him at the table.

The conversation, Akbaruddin said, was extremely friendly and the discussions were largely a sort of getting to know each other approach, and the prime minister was asked to outline his vision and what issues he faced so far and how he was working on it.

Remarkably, some of the things Modi mentioned seemed to resonate with Obama; the president said he had similar concerns when he came into office.

"They had had many similarities in terms of both had used technology in their campaigns very successfully and both were relative outsiders to capital cities when they assumed power," Akbaruddin said.

Both leaders mentioned how they had been quite surprised that their great interest in technology had run into difficulties and disappointments in initial infrastructure they saw that was available for government.

The prime minister pointed out that when he came from Gujarat he found that the technological infrastructure in Delhi was not what he was used to in Gujarat.

Obama, whose presidential campaign and his re-election campaign exhibited vividly how social media and technology could run circles around his rivals' campaigns, found that his Affordable Health Care legislation or Obamacare rollout by the administration was a disaster when the server kept crashing and was an utter embarrassment that had the Republicans -- who were totally opposed to Obamacare -- arguing that how this health plan could be successful when even the Website kept crashing or people could get through to even download an application.

The prime minister, Akbaruddin said, "in great detail laid out his hopes and aspirations for India, his development vision and how he feels that the United States could help out in that development mission."

The menu for the dinner.

Besides, Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John F Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, also at the dinner was Dr Rajiv Shah, Administrator, US Agency for International Development, and two other Indian Americans -- Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal and Vinai Thummalapally, former US ambassador to Belize and now executive director of the International Trade Administration's SelectUSA programme.

Thummalapally was a former room-mate of Obama's at Occidental College in Los Angeles and during his campaign, a major fundraiser who was rewarded with an ambassadorship, making him the first-ever Indian-American US Ambassador.

US Secretary of State John F Kerry introduces External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to President Barack Obama as National Security Adviser Ajit K Doval flashes a rare smile. Also in the photograph: India's Ambassador to the US Dr S Jaishankar.

The Indian guests at the dinner were External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, National Security Adviser Ajit K Doval Ambassador Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh and other aides.

"In general," Akbaruddin said, "there was a lot of goodwill for India and the United States in each other's countries -- people to people relations were extremely cordial."

There was also a feeling the leaders should try and focus on some big things they can achieve in a finite time period in the next few years.

Both leaders were of the view that the India-US relationship was among the most important relationships in the world today and therefore it was incumbent on both of them to work towards strengthening and deepening that relationship.

In that context, two global issues for starters New Delhi and Washington could work on together was the Ebola crisis and Afghanistan, post the NATO and US troop withdrawal by end 2014.

One of the prime minister's gifts for President Obama.

Journalists were intrigued that two leaders who met for the first time had penned a joint editorial and wondered how this could have happened, to which Akbaruddin said, "Both the prime minister and President Obama are great votaries of digital diplomacy" and that they had been interacting digitally ever since Modi's op-ed in The Wall Street Journal had appeared, and it was finalised "only this evening after the prime minister's arrival here."

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Aziz Haniffa/Rediff.com in Washington, DC
 
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