Barack Obama’s trip to India was high on optics and symbolism and made headlines across the world, mainly for progress on the nuclear deal, but there are rumblings in the Indian establishment about a number of faux pas that threatened to mar it.
The banquet hosted by President Pranab Mukherjee for Obama — with 250 guests, the biggest-ever held at Rashtrapati Bhawan — had its share of glitches. Service was poor, and after the US leader finished his speech, glasses to raise a toast had to be rushed in as an afterthought, a cabinet minister told HT. Another dignitary at the event said that Obama was heard asking, “May I have a glass?”
Rashtrapati Bhawan officials were defensive, saying that they had received no complaints, but acknowledged: “There could have been delayed service in one or two tables as the Rashtrapati Bhawan has only one kitchen and pantry.”
Service was provided by the presidential palace, Hyderabad House and government catering institutes at Pusa Road and Lajpat Nagar.
Several invitees including cabinet ministers said that they had to wait in a queue from 7.20pm due to high security for Obama, who arrived more than an hour later. Senior MPs like Murli Manohar Joshi, an octogenarian, waited patiently as a number of ministers stood grumbling.
Government sources said that defence minister Manohar Parrikar has called for an urgent ministerial review this week about arrangements at the Republic Day parade that left the US president and first lady Michelle Obama, as well as their hosts Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Mukherjee, out in the rain for nearly an hour.
“The minister wants retractable canopies to be put up in the 2016 parade so that the VVIPs and others are guarded against the elements. There was failure to act on the rain forecast that day and no effort made to install canopies in the VVIP block in the name of tradition,” said a top defence ministry official.
Umbrellas were held for Obama, Modi, Mukherjee and vice-president Hamid Ansari, while Michelle and Ansari’s wife Salma shared one. Parrikar and his minister of state, Rao Inderjit Singh, had to use the parade brochures to take cover.
After attending the ceremonial reception for Obama at Rashtrapati Bhawan, foreign secretary Sujatha Singh, Indian ambassador to the United States S Jaishankar, joint secretary in the prime minister’s office (PMO) Jawed Ashraf and joint secretary (Americas) Vinay Kwatra were prevented by Delhi Police from going to Hyderabad House for official level talks as all roads to the venue were blocked.
“All the cars were carrying ‘Indian delegation on duty’ stickers but the police went for a security overkill. So much so that even external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, who everybody recognises, had trouble getting to the venue,” said a senior diplomat.
He said that Ashraf took a ride on a police motorcycle from Dr Rajendra Prasad Road to Hyderabad House even as Sanjeev Singla, private secretary to the PM, was trying to reach him frantically because Modi was looking for him. Delhi Police and security agencies pointed to a lack of coordination between ministry of external affairs protocol and the Delhi Police.