Obama’s first state dinner goes to India

Obama’s first state dinner goes to India

Washington: And the first state dinner of US President Barack Obama’s administration goes to...India.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is coming to the US for a state visit on 24 November. Such visits include an elaborate arrival ceremony on the White House South Lawn, one-on-one time with the president and, in the evening, a state dinner.

It is a plum presidential nod of recognition for the world’s largest democracy and most stable US ally in a hostile corner of the world.

But why India first?

It was just four years ago that president George W. Bush and Singh raised their glasses and toasted the US-India relationship at the start of a July 2005 state dinner.

Indian officials, however, have watched warily since then as the US has become more engaged with its arch-rival, Pakistan, focusing on greater military cooperation in dealing with Islamic extremists there and in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Honouring Singh with what is considered one of the grandest and most glamorous of White House affairs 10 months into Obama’s presidency may allay some of those misgivings, along with perceptions that Pakistan has surpassed India as the US’ best friend in South Asia. It also may be Obama’s way of closing the loop with all the major US allies as his freshman year in office draws to a fast close.

Obama’s first-year global itinerary has taken him to the major European power centres of England, France, Germany, Italy and Russia. He has toured West Asia and is scheduled to visit China and possibly other Asian countries in November, before Singh visits.

The president has even scheduled a day trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, this week—he will spend more time in the air than on the ground—in a bid to personally boost his adopted hometown’s chances of bringing the 2016 Olympic Games to Chicago.

Secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton hand-delivered the state visit invitation from Obama during her July trip to India. Singh, re-elected to a second term this year, and Obama met on the sidelines of a London economic summit in April, and discussed cooperating on the economic downturn, climate change and counterterror. Obama later called Singh a “very wise and decent man".

After years of mutual wariness during the Cold War, US-Indian relations are at a high point, thanks partly to the Bush administration’s push to allow US civilian nuclear trade with India. The Obama administration has used that accord as a foundation for improving ties and hopes of cooperation on the president’s priority issues, such as climate change and countering terror.

“We are very committed to this relationship," Clinton said of India when questioned about deepening US relations with Pakistan. But a trip to India so far has escaped the sights of the president’s travel planners. That’s where the dinner comes in. A state dinner technically is for a “head of state", and Singh is not. India’s head of state is Pratibha Patil, in the largely symbolic role of president. But there is precedent for having state dinners for non-heads of state.

Obama’s first one will be the talk of the town, perhaps second only to his inauguration and the parties that followed in terms of celebrity star power and got-to-be-there fever.

A tonne of planning is involved, from creating the invitation to compiling a guest list. Meals, desserts and wines are tasted until the right pairings are found. Flowers must be chosen and arranged just so, along with the seating, place settings and entertainment.

Responsibility for the planning falls to first lady Michelle Obama and her staff, and people will be waiting to see what twists she and her social secretary, Desiree Rogers, will put on one of the White House’s most staid traditions.

Matthew Lee and Foster Klug contributed to this story.