They are the hottest tickets in town: invitations to the first official dinner at the White House.
The Obamas’ guest of honor today (Nov. 24) will be Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
This being the Indian community—one of the most affluent and successful immigrant groups in the U.S.—everybody thinks they’re a Somebody. And with this dinner bigger than the dinner President George W. Bush held for Mr. Singh in 2005, the chances of getting in are higher. Well, maybe. Politico reported that talk-show celebrity Oprah Winfrey might be there, which means the Obamas are inviting friends, which means the president of the South Asian Optometry Association of the Greater Houston area doesn’t stand a chance.
Back in July 2005, President Bush had less than 150 guests, many of them prominent donors to the Republican Party or the heads of companies from Infosys Technologies to Ethan Allen Inc. While the White House is declining to comment, people with knowledge of the affair say it could draw between 300 and 400. The White House remains mum on exactly who will be there, saying a guest list will be disclosed today.
Asia Society president Vishakha N. Desai says it will mark her third dinner at the White House for a visiting Indian official. (The Obama dinner for Singh is technically not a “state dinner” since the Indian president is the head of state—a bestowment in itself a technicality given the clout Pratibha Patil really has.)
Last time around, Ms. Desai sat next to Mr. Singh and described the experience as an “amazing honor.”
“Each White House takes a slightly different spin on the dinner,” Ms. Desai said. Her husband, Robert Oxnam, also was president of the Asia Society in the 1980s and remembers actress Raquel Welch, for example, at the 1985 dinner hosted by Ronald and Nancy Reagan honoring Singapore’s longtime Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. President Clinton invited 700 people over for dinner with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the last and largest such banquet of his presidency. The guest list included the late NASA astronaut Kalpana Chawla and celebrities such as tennis player Vijay Amritraj and model Christie Brinkley. That dinner featured desi hints with Darjeeling tea, a pea and cilantro soup, and a dessert spread with fruits such as mango and litchis included.
The Bush dinner for Mr. Singh also tried to nod to the guest of honor’s homeland. The saffron tablecloths were topped with trumpeting elephants made of flowers (a convenient meeting of the GOP symbol with an important animal in Indian culture). Among other fare, the Bushes served basmati rice and a slew of ice creams, from cashew to chocolate-cardamom.
“Mrs. Bush introduced me to Mrs. Singh by saying I was CEO of the ‘best home furnishing company of the world,’” Farooq Kathwari, president of Ethan Allen, recalled this week. “She then turned to me and asked me if that was true. I said how could I argue with her.”
South Asians–here and there–are certainly watching Mr. Obama’s overtures toward India with interest. After Mr. Obama won the election, Indian media widely reported that he “snubbed’ Mr. Singh by not returning his congratulatory call. Mr. Singh refuted the accounts, saying he was busy traveling and the two could not connect. And in both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mr. Obama’s initial trips to Asia, India did not make their itineraries. Mrs. Clinton did go in July, carrying the dinner invitation for Mr. Singh.
As conflict in Pakistan and Afghanistan escalates, Mr. Obama faces a tricky balancing act in not allowing relations with India to appear driven by foreign-policy concerns with its neighbors. Mr. Bush was especially lauded for his ability to cement such an independent relationship, most notably by guiding the nuclear deal to passage.
“There was a feeling that Bush had given India very special consideration. Since the arrival of the Obama administration, there is a feeling among Indian media and some elites that India is losing its special status in the U.S.,” Ms. Desai said. “In India’s 62-year-old history as an independent nation, the U.S. and India have been estranged partners for a longer time than allies.This relationship is still young. It has to be nurtured. So it’s great to have the first state visit.”
S. Mitra Kalita