Somewhere in Washington D.C.....

The hottest ticket in town is an invitation to the banquet President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are hosting next week for PM Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan at the White House—the first State visit Obamas are hosting since moving into 1600, Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s an invitation everyone covets but no one has seen. Word is that the White House is telling invitees to keep it close to their chest because of the lobbying that will inevitably break out—especially in the desi crowd— once the word gets out of the honors scroll. In fact, so tightly scripted is the event that there isn’t even a whisper of the menu or entertainment for the evening both of which will provide some reading of the tea leaves about how Obama intends to treat Delhi at a very uncertain time in US-India ties. This much is known: Singh will arrive on Sunday, November 22, and will NOT check into Blair House, located right across from the White House, the official state guest house used to check in most foreign heads of state. Instead, the he and his entourage will check into Willard Hotel, a block east of the White House, which is famous for having originated the term “lobbying”. Local folklore (often challenged) has it that President Ulysses Grant often repaired here to relax and smoke a cigar in the lobby where favor-seekers would approach him, hence the term lobbying. After a night’s rest, the PM will address the US-India Business Council on Monday morning and engage policy wonks at the Council for Foreign Relations later in the day. The next day, November 24, is when he will be formally welcomed on the White House lawns with the band-baja that he has already seen once as a guest of the Bush White House—which will make Singh arguably the only world leader who has been a “state guest” of two successive US presidents of two political parties. Tuesday evening is when the Obamas will host the formal black tie dinner in the White House when the Americans will be largely tuxedoed (men) and be-gowned (women). There will be brief speeches, toasts, fine food and entertainment. Strictly speaking though, Singh’s is not a “state visit” as such visits involves the Head of State (in India’s case Pratibha Patil). But as India’s presidential post is largely ceremonial and titular, Washington, keen to mollify Delhi with grand gestures in the absence of any substantial development, has gotten around the protocol issue by terming this an official state visit.

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