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Rediff.com  » News » Welcome to the 'mother of all state dinners'

Welcome to the 'mother of all state dinners'

Last updated on: November 30, 2009 21:20 IST

'Obama has real regard for the vitality of Indian Americans'

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For the eclectic mix of India Americans -- from senior White House officials to politicians and community activists to medical professionals -- invited to the first state dinner hosted by the Obamas in honour of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur, it was a 'memorable' and a 'magical evening' full of fun and great entertainment that would be forever etched in their memory, reports Aziz Hanniffa.

Preeta Bansal, senior counsel and adviser to the White House office of management and budget, told rediff.com, "It was a breathtaking and spectacular evening -- it was warm, it was lively and it was a lot of fun."

"People were having a really relaxed and having a good time and one could see that the personal chemistry was great between the two leaders," she said. "Even the Indian delegation and the US side  -- on both sides there was tremendous chemistry."

Bansal, reiterated that 'it was such a joyous event and people were having such a good time and breaking bread together.'


Image: US President Barack Obama and US First Lady Michelle Obama greet Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Singh at the White House State Dinner in Washington, DC
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi
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'The evening made me so proud as an Indian American'

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Asked to speak to the mix of people like her and other young Indian Americans serving in the administration as well as community activists, politicians and media celebrities invited to the gala banquet, she said, "President Obama has a real regard for the vitality of the Indian American community and he understands that the new generation is a different generation and he wanted to honour them."

"So, here he was honouring the first generation, but also recognising the vitality of the diversity of the second generation. So, as you said, we had non-governmental organisation leaders, we had women's activists, news and media people. It was such a great mix and it just made me really proud, and made me so proud as an Indian American," she added.

Bansal acknowledged the ease of interactions among the guests and recalling similar presidential events she's been to, said, "This one was just fun," and said having the likes of Oscar-winner music director A R Rahman  performing and getting the audience clapping and chiming with 'Jai Ho' that has become so much a part of the Hollywood lore, with and the fusion of Indian food in the cuisine and the table and tent decorations and the colours, was undeniably the acceptance of Indian culture as part of the American mainstream mosaic.


Image: Preeta Bansal meets PM Dr Manmohan Singh and his wife during the state dinner
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi
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'The food, the entertainment captivated the audience'

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Iowa State Senator Swati Dandekar, who attended the dinner along with her husband Arvind, said, "Both of us thoroughly enjoyed the evening. The state dinner was fabulous. We had a chance to meet several members of the Senate and the House, cabinet members, governors, celebrities, government officials and other invited guests."

She said, of course, "The highlight of the event for us was meeting President and Mrs Obama and Prime Minister and Mrs Singh," and spoke of how in her brief interaction with the President Obama, he 'asked me to convey his greetings to all Iowans.'

"Dr Singh remembered my meeting with him two years ago, when I visited India at the request of the Indian government," she added.

Dandekar also echoed the personal chemistry between Obama and Dr Singh and said they 'were most gracious and upbeat in their remarks,' and was most impressed by their commitment that 'it was critical that the world's oldest and largest democracies will have to work together to advance the cause of world peace and economic growth.'

She said she was so thrilled with 'the fusion of the American and Indian culture and traditions' at the dinner and said it was so encompassing and permeating in that it 'could be seen in the beautiful decorations in the tent that was set up for the dinner,' and the 'choice of the menu that was outstanding and featured both American and Indian cuisine.'

"The food was delicious and well presented, and the entertainment, which was a mixture of Hollywood and Bollywood, and the program clearly captivated the audience," she said.

Dandekar was also full of praise for the White House staff, saying that they 'made everyone feel at home and their attention to detail was superb.'


Image: Iowa State Senator Swati Dandekar
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi
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'An unforgettable experience'

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Ohio state legislator Jay Goyal, who is also a Member-at-Large of the Democratic National Committee, said, "It was such a magical evening and it was such an honour and privilege to be able to take my mother, Kiran, as my guest."

"She said that she felt truly honoured and privileged to be able to attend the event and for her the highlight of the evening was meeting with President Obama and the First Lady," he said.

Goyal said for him the evening also 'provided an opportunity to interact with a number of government, military and business officials and discuss the many issues and challenges facing Ohioans.'

"In particular, it was a pleasure to talk with Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," he said, and pointed out, "The 179th airlift wing, a military base for the air national guard, is located in my district."

Goyal said that in his interaction with Mullen he had a brief discussion 'about the deployment issues and the strain that it places on families.'

"Overall, it was an experience that I will not forget anytime soon," he said.

Lieutenant Colonel Ravi Chaudhary, who attended the dinner with his brother and State Senator from Minnesota Satveer Chaudhary, gushed, "Wow, it was truly a honour to meet our Commander-in-Chief and the First Lady, and help them extend the hand of friendship to the Indian delegation in such a splendid manner."

"It was an evening of such joy for all who attended and the tremendous energy and enthusiasm in the room was so palpable," he added.


Image: Ohio state legislator Jay Goyal
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi
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'An acknowledgement of the ties that bind India and US'

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Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, also said, "I had such a wonderful time and being invited was a tremendous honour -- one that I will always cherish."

She said, "I was so fortunate to have my father, who's a physician in Louisville, Kentucky, with me at the event and we enjoyed every minute of it -- from the pre-reception in the East Wing where we met Attorney General Eric Holder and film director Steven Spielberg to the receiving line where we spoke briefly with the President, the First Lady, the Prime Minister and Mrs Kaur to the fabulous dinner and entertainment. It was just unbelievable."

From the standpoint of a community activist, Iyer said, "Both the President and the Prime Minister remarked upon the contributions and presence of the growing Indian American community here in the United States and it was certainly an acknowledgment and recognition of the ties that bind India and the US."

"For those of us who are community advocates and activists, it was important to be part of the event," she said and pointed out that among 'all of the corporate leaders, entertainers and elected officials in the audience were also people like me, Bhairavi Desai, of the New York Taxi Drivers Alliance, Maneesha Kelkar of Manavi, and Annetta Seecharran of South Asian Youth Action, who advocate on behalf of South Asian communities each day.'

Iyer said that 'having a seat at the table -- for an event like this and more importantly, for purposes of affecting policy change -- is extremely meaningful. It demonstrates that the Indian American community is blazing trails in many sectors and arenas and that community-based organisations such as ours are important partners.'

She argued, "As we think about what the US-India relationship looks like in the future, it is important that conversations move beyond the nuclear deal to also include issues such a violations of human rights, responses to the War on Terror and the treatment of minorities -- issues that affect people both in the United States and in India."

Dr Vinod 'Vinny' Shah, president of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, who attended with his wife, Dr Ila Shah, said, "It was an extraordinary, once in a lifetime kind of memorable event."

He spoke of how he had an opportunity to schmooze with the likes of Senator John F Kerry and Daniel Inouye and former US secretary of state and erstwhile National Security Advisers in the George H W and George W Bush administrations, Retd. Gen. Colin Powell, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Also with the likes of tycoons like Ratan Tata, Sunil Mittal, Harsh Singhania and Geeta Reddy, he added.

Shah, a close friend and neighbour of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, said, "Our pride A R Rahman performed, and of course, there were all our young leaders like Aneesh Chopra, Chief Technology Officer in the Obama White House."

Shah said he and his wife were just behind Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her husband in the receiving line to be greeted by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and Prime Minister Singh and his wife.

"The atmosphere inside the tent was beautiful, being decorated with a shamiana and I know that the president and the prime minister spoke from their heart. There was so much a sense of friendship, affection and mutual respect that people seemed to have for each other and this is such a high point in Indo-US relations," he said.

Shah said he was elated over the remarks of President Obama in recognising the 'contributions of the Indian American community and that he is looking forward to his visit to India with the First Lady and his two beautiful daughters next year.'


Image: Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together

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'Obamas really know how to throw a party!'

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Dr Rachakond D Prabhu, of Las Vegas, Nevada, a close friend and physician of Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid, who was also at the event with his wife Lata, described it 'as the mother of all state dinners that I have ever attended.'

He spoke of how 'on arrival, we walked on the red carpet and our names were announced and we walked pass the press, who kept taking our pictures. Then, we were greeted in the receiving line by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and the Prime Minister and Mrs Singh and the US Ambassador to India Tim Roemer.'

Prabhu said, "Then we were led to the blue room and the green room and then to the East Room, where the guests were gathered for cocktails and chit-chat. When all the guests arrived, we were taken out of the White House to the South Lawn into the large tent. We felt, were being led into paradise."

He spoke of how "I shook hands and chit-chatted with some very important people like David Axelrod, Vice-President Joe Biden, Mayor Bloomberg, Deepak Chopra, Hillary Clinton, Katie Couric, Rahm Emanuel, Mukesh Ambani, Ratan Tata, Nirupama Rao, S M Krishnam, Senator Richard Lugar, Indra Nooyi and Colin Powell ."

Prabhu said, "This is the best party I have ever attended in my life. The Obama folks really know how to throw a party. And, everybody we chatted to as we left kept saying how happy and proud they were to have been invited. We were so honoured, so privileged, to have been a part of this first state dinner, and that too for our Indian Prime Minister and his wife. What a honour for India, what a honour for the Indian American community."


Image: Industrialist Ratan Tata and US Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer at the PM's luncheon reception in Washington, DC
Photographs: Jay Mandal / On assignment
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