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Obama's date with Delhi

By Aditi Phadnis, Ritika Bhatia, Manavi Kapur & Nayanima Basu
January 04, 2015 12:12 IST
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The city readies itself for the biggest economic, political and social event of the year

Amid complicated and dense analyses of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to President Barack Obama to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi (Will there be a 10-year defence pact? What will happen to the nuclear liability law? Does the visit mark a red line for Sino-Indian relationship? How will it impact India-Pakistan relations?), the remarks of a low-level functionary of the Bharatiya Janata Party's Delhi unit come as a breath of fresh air. Sitting at a chaat house, downing golgappas, he explains its “real” import: the city will be decked up like a bride and help the party win the coming state elections. Ah, the genius of Modi! As it is said in the Vedas, there is only one truth but wise men describe it differently.

Sitting in his large but noisy and cluttered office in downtown New Delhi, a spokesperson of the New Delhi Municipal Corporation, the agency responsible for the upkeep of the areas where Obama will spend most of his time, is nonchalance personified. Dignitaries come and go all the time and it’s the corporation’s job to keep its areas neat and clean every day, he says vehemently.

There are, he insists, no specific plans to impress the Obamas. Some of his colleagues are worried that the visit will come after elections to the Delhi legislative assembly are announced and the model code of conduct, which prohibits major expenditures and announcements, will be in force. How to ensure that the Obamas go back with a favourable impression of the city?

What is certain is that the railings on Rajpath, where the parade takes place, will get a fresh coat of paint. A South Delhi Municipal Corporation officer discloses that garbage will be removed, major roundabouts and roads will be decorated with floral messages, and parks will be spruced up -- it takes a visit from the world’s most powerful man to get such work done. The North Delhi Municipal Corporation doesn’t expect special orders to clean up because Obama is unlikely to travel through its territory.

But the security bandobast is tight. Anti-sabotage and frisking teams of the Delhi police will be positioned at different check points in the city. Patrolling and screening will be stepped up. Central paramilitary forces have been put at Delhi police’s disposal. “There are no threats or protests expected, but if something arises we are prepared to deal with it,” says a Delhi police spokesperson.

To watch the parade, about 150,000 enthusiastic people turn up every year. This year, their numbers are expected to swell to 175,000. To accommodate more VIPs and commoners, the Central Public Works Department is building extra enclosures. Gate checks will be stricter. The parade, which has started practice, will have nine marching contingents, eight mounted ones (including Russian tanks and the Brahmos missile developed jointly by India and Russia), and 18 bands. The states are still deciding their tableaux.

Obama, along with wife Michelle and daughters Sasha and Malia, is likely to stay where most American presidents have stayed: the ITC Maurya on Sardar Patel Marg. The presidential suite of this hotel is located on an exclusive floor with separate, secured elevators. This enables security personnel to cordon off certain areas without inconveniencing the other guests.

An ex-employee of ITC Hotels recalls the challenges the hotel faced when former US president, Bill Clinton, visited in 2000 and the hotel was fully taken over by the US secret service. “They were friendly, but you know a secret service agent when you see one.” The hotel was a fortress for the duration of the visit. For the employees, it was not a comfortable situation. But despite the problems, it got good publicity: it even put on the menu of its Indian restaurant, Bukhara, Clinton and Chelsea platters. It is expected that the security preparations will begin on January 15 at the ITC Maurya.

Rival hotels in the city, though some of them too boast of exclusive presidential suites, no longer chase such business. That’s because the security staff books the entire hotel, which inconveniences the other guests. In a business where word-of-mouth publicity matters the most, many hotels have decided to let the opportunity pass. Some hotels expect business to go up as large official and unofficial delegations are likely to accompany Obama.

Logistics companies hope to see a spike in business. Ramesh Varadarajan, owner of Delhi-based Ampersand Logistics, will help fly in equipment required by the White House press pool. “Normally, after such a visit is announced, we get a request from our partner-agent in the US for the kind and volume of shipment that needs to be brought into India,” he explains. The media contingent is expected to travel in two batches and will arrive two to three days before Obama's scheduled arrival. Ampersand will move all equipment from the airport to wherever the president will visit within India.

As to how much the visit will cost and how many people will come with Obama, no one is saying anything yet. When Obama came in 2010, the White House had to deny reports that his trip to Mumbai (and Indonesia) cost $200 million per day. News agencies had said that not only “3,000 people, including secret service agents, government officials and journalists would accompany the president”, but also that Obama would “be protected by a fleet of 34 warships”.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell was scathing. “I will take the liberty this time of dismissing as absolutely absurd this notion that somehow we are deploying 10 per cent of the navy, some 34 ships, and an aircraft carrier in support of the president's trip to Asia. Nothing close to that is being done.”

Business, too, is seeking a meeting with Obama. This visit is particularly important keeping in mind the government’s Make In India campaign and its export-centric growth plans. According to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, White House officials are planning business engagements with Indian industry after the Republic Day parade. Leading business associations and US-India Business Council will probably meet Obama together.

A meeting with the president of the United States is a prestigious event. Think tanks are also hoping to meet Obama. The Vivekananda International Foundation, the current government’s favourite, could be the prime candidate, especially since its core focus is diplomacy and security. Officially, though, its spokesperson denies knowledge of any such request to the White House. 

The Observer Research Foundation, set up by the Ambani family, is exploring the possibility of hosting a televised event to discuss the agenda for Obama’s visit to India. As the visit gets closer, there is sure to be a mad scramble amongst Delhi schools and NGOs to host the First Lady and her daughters.

Obama will arrive in Delhi around midnight on January 24. The next day will see him in a 90-minute meeting with Modi. All bilateral issues, from trade to terrorism, are expected to be discussed. It remains to be seen if the implementation of the civil nuclear cooperation agreement, which has seen no movement since its signing in 2008, can be rolled out. If it is, it will mean the US has made its peace with India’s controversial liability laws, enabling energy giants like GE and Westinghouse to start investing in the country’s nuclear energy sector. Issues such as renewable energy and intellectual property rights could also be discussed.

A pre-advance team from the US was here last month. Another is coming along with Secretary of State John Kerry. It is this team that will finalise discussion points. Kerry, who is coming here to attend the Vibrant Gujarat show, will meet Modi on January 12 to finalise what US wants from the visit and what India needs. Modi will obviously discuss Pakistan (the recent Peshawar school attack, the state patronage to terrorists) and the dreaded ISIS gaining a foothold in India.

On January 26, after the parade, Obama will make a dash to Agra. A family picture in front of the monument of love is certain. When and whether Varanasi, the gateway to nirvana, can be squeezed in is not yet clear. He is expected to leave the same night.

The visit is about gestures. The strategic intent is to lighten the atmosphere after a slump in the relationship: both economic and diplomatic. But the real struggle will start in the next few days when the guest lists are drawn up for the lunches and dinners that Obama will attend. President Pranab Mukherjee is sure to host a ceremonial banquet. The last time the National Democratic Alliance was in power and President Clinton came on a visit, there was a near stampede to secure invitations to the banquet. 

Brajesh Mishra, who was then the principal secretary to the prime minister, had disclosed, his head in his hands, that all of Delh’s A-listers wanted to be invited to the banquet, including he confided, “members of the Left parties”. It is unlikely to be any different this time: look out for the most competitive social event of the year.

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Aditi Phadnis, Ritika Bhatia, Manavi Kapur & Nayanima Basu
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