It was the longest queue that the Rashtrapati Bhavan had seen in recent times. The new banquet hall was packed to the gills. The Indian contingent stood in threes and everyone got their picture taken. Dinner with the Obamas can never be a casual affair. This time around, it was the Rashtrapati Bhavan wearing its heart on its sleeve. And President Barack Obama turned on the charm.
“He had a personal comment for each of the officials,’’ says press secretary Venu Rajamony who met him.
Going the extra mile, the Rashtrapati Bhavan switched on the lights so that Obama could get a glimpse of the building all lit up. He was apparently very impressed. “This was a special gesture by President Mukherjee,’’ says Rajamony. The lights are usually switched on only on Republic Day.
The visit was worked out carefully so that protocol on both sides was followed. It was believed that President Obama would come to the Rashtrapati Bhavan and accompany President Mukherjee to the parade. As the American president travels only in his bullet-proof limousine called the ‘Beast’ and President Mukherjee also travels in his own car, it was decided later that Obama would arrive separately.
The ‘At Home’ or the high-tea reception that President Mukherjee hosts in the Mughal Garden every Republic Day and Independence Day gave President Obama a chance to interact informally with the cabinet ministers and other dignitaries. During the high-tea, Michelle Obama, in an ivory dress, was seen chatting with Vice President Hamid Ansari, while President Obama kept Mrs Ansari company. He apparently walked up to Arjan Singh, Marshal of the Air Force, who informed him that he was 96 years old. Obama responded that he could see the fighter in him.
Gifts were exchanged. While Michelle was presented with a pashmina shawl from President Mukherjee and his wife, the Mukherjees got a piece of history―the telegram that President Harry Truman sent when India became a republic in 1950. Framed in gold and typed in ink that has become purple over the years, the message echoes a sentiment that 64 years later Obama also would―the desire for goodwill among the people of the two countries. “The establishment of the sovereign independent Republic of India represents the final step in India’s political transition which closely parallels the political evolution of our country,’’ wrote Truman. For Pranab Mukherjee, a true keeper of history, this telegram is perfect.
But the exchange of gifts hadn't ended. The Mukherjees gifted an ivory and turquoise tea-set to the Obamas, who reciprocated with a custom glass Constitution platter. Designed by Californian artist Stephen Schlanser who designs for musician Sly Stone, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and politician Hillary Clinton, this platter blends Indian and American motifs. So the edges have the decorative border of the Preamble of the Constitution and the stars from the American flag. President Obama’s parting words to President Mukherjee were that it was wonderful that a man of his wisdom was leading the country.