India Comes to the White House, All At Once

I never expected to see so many faces of modern India as I saw Tuesday night. The White House’s state dinner, its first of the new administration, honored Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. It was every sequin and silk cravat a glittering and sumptuous affair, as the media has made it out to be, Yet in the midst of it all I sensed the first sprouts of a new level of understanding and partnership between India and the United States, something not achieved in all the ceremony of the President’s China visit. There, the smiles of the Chinese were backed by ruthless self-interest. Here one felt a basis of true warmth.

NPR phoned me this morning to ask why someone as strange as me was invited. Actually, my wife Rita and I dined at one of the Clintons’ formal dinners. But the Obama’s raised the level of care, sensitivity and detail paid to their guests. Few of us in the Indian diaspora have been very visible until recently. We amount to an insignificant voting bloc at 2.6 million, but looking around the room, I saw much more than the stereotype of doctors, motel owners, and dubious accents answering the phone across the world with “Hello, my name is Shirley. How can I help you today?”
The Obama administration showed a sure touch, offering assurance to India that this country made a good decision last November. Every detail of the menu (green shrimp curry instead of chicken breast) , décor and entertainment (a rambunctious Bollywood-style reprise of the anthem “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire) conveyed cultural respect and generosity.

As we entered, the receiving line was cordial and comfortably cross-cultural. The Obamas chatted, offered knowing remarks (“Keep that advice coming, Deepak”), posed for photos. I was more self-conscious, surprisingly, in the presence of the Indian Prime Minister and his wife, who are more ceremonial and, in his case, formally eloquent, as we discovered during the dinner speeches. Being almost twenty years the President’s senior, I felt a paternal wave come over me and in response to his kind words found myself saying how proud I was of him and all he was doing.

Meeting a President throws you off balance, no matter how prepared you are. I blurted out a mild Sarah Palin joke. He gave a noncommittal smile. I walked away from the First Couple impressed not by the effortless ease of professional celebrities but by a genuine courtesy of the heart.

Once we were seated President Obama spoke movingly about the future of India and the United States as partners. The relationship between the two countries is not only beneficial for each other, but together we become a powerful force of prosperity and peace for the entire world. He invoked Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech at the birth of India’s nationhood, where Nehru called upon midnight’s children — as everyone saw themselves, not just newborns like me — to leave the past behind in order to shape a future of freedom, opportunity and peace. Prime Minister Singh continued this theme of mutual prosperity and enrichment between our two nations in his distinctive Punjabi accent. It seemed an epoch away that India was a closed society, aligned with Soviet socialist programs, crippled by bureaucracy, sold out to corruption. Not that a good deal of that legacy isn’t alive still.
 Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelson, brought in from New York and his sophisticated roost at Aquavit, offered a wonderful selection of vegetarian dishes like chick pea and okra dahl, another stroke of cultural empathy (perhaps the most powerful one of the evening, given the Indian nostalgia for the food we were raised on). There was room for regional American foods like collard greens and cornbread (found in India, too — did they know?) It was all prepared in a way that Dr. Dean Ornish would approve of, and aligned to Michelle Obama’s message of sustainability. The Obama administration actually understands that future prosperity must come through a green economy, not in spite of it.

Rita and I were seated with Steny Hoyer, Vernon Jordan and his wife Ann, Admiral Michael Mullen and his wife Deborah, Fareed Zakaria and his wife Paula. The table conversation rambled over many topics including Indian history, healthy lifestyles, politics, and stress management. One marveled at Deborah Mullen’s in-depth knowledge of Gandhi, Lord Mountbatten and Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. On the topic of meditation, Paula Throckmorton Zakaria spoke at length of her personal experience and the journey through her meditation practice.

Has the White House ever witnessed folk dancing from Prime Minister Singh’s native Punjab? Afterwards he remarked on the coming together of “ancient tradition and modernity.” We stood up with everyone else after Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “Somewhere” from West Side Story.
 When the President talked about Nehru’s vision for the future, I looked around at the other Indians in attendance and realized that we are all the product of the dreams put in place those sixty years ago. The now-famous Indian Institutes of Technology and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences that I graduated from were begun all those years ago with a single intention to create a more progressive, prosperous and powerful future.

India and the United States have a shared opportunity now for a new level of growth and opportunity that can include everyone, not just the fortunate and privileged. I believe Pakistan has this opportunity available to it as well. With a primary dedication in each nation to economic progress over militarism, extending basic education and health services to all, and reaching a mediated solution to Kashmir, two enemies could create a peaceful coalition instead of the conflict-driven, fear-based, grab-it-while-you-can policies we see around us.

As Pakistan continues to divert massive military resources to Kashmir in fear of India, the Taliban is allowed to spread its violence and grow stronger. As Obama contemplates the hard decision over new troop levels in Afghanistan, I am convinced that the situation does not have a military solution. (Rita had a moment with Vice-President Joe Biden and impressed upon him her view that more troops are not the answer.)

On the other side of the Indo-American alliance, New Delhi needs to reorder its priorities. The country is facing an uncontrolled AIDS epidemic; 30% of its people go to sleep hungry every night; and 300 million live in radical poverty. All this while the government spends lavishly on defense and the rich get shockingly richer. There as here, a green, sustainable future is a historic imperative, and if this state dinner has moved us incrementally closer to that future, then it was a human success and not simply a splashy night on the town.

Published at Huffingtonpost