When India asked President Barack Obama to be chief guest at the Republic Day parade, the first reaction at the White House was surprise; then a sense of honour, and, now, excitement.
There is great “affinity” between the two countries, but there is also a “history that is complicated”, senior White House official Ben Rhodes said on Wednesday previewing the visit.
It would have been highly unlikely for a US president to be sitting with India’s leaders at the stage reviewing the parade “over the course of last decades”, he added.
“President Obama felt personally honored,” said Rhodes.
The US sees in this invitation a “very strong and clear indication from India’s leadership that they want to elevate” relations at both bilateral and global levels.
India had never invited a US president to the Republic Day parade before. Not, obviously, when relations were bad, or hostile, and never during the brief spells of thaw.
“No one had even thought of it,” said an Indian official. But it could not be immediately confirmed if Delhi never wanted a US chief guest, or it simply didn’t want to be turned down.
Officials on both side are attaching great significance just to the fact that a US president will be seen with Indian leaders reviewing the parade “for hours” — just the symbolism of it.
They placed it above and beyond all standard summit terms diplomats, foreign policy wonks and reporters toss around to impress — “deliverables” and “outcomes”.
There will be those, of course: Politics, a bilateral delegation level meeting, on Sunday, the day Obama arrives. And business, interaction with CEOs, on Monday.
Climate change and trade will lead the US list of to-dos, and investments for India.
But a US president’s presence on Rajpath is likely to overshadow everything else.
“Think what message that will send to Indians,” said an Indian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, “given the history of distrust Indians have harboured of Americans.”
Former foreign minister Natwar Singh recalled in his recent book that Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s first question to him after the nuclear deal was that how could he agree to it.
“You know there is an undercurrent in this country against America’s policy.” She had, of course, prior knowledge of the deal, and had, in fact, cleared it, according to sources.
It was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea — to invite Obama, with whom shares a chemistry now after several meetings — from all available accounts. “He put it on the table.”
Officials at the Indian embassy in DC went to work, and didn’t really have to sweat as the White House was quickly on board. The circle of people who knew was really small.
When it was all done, and in the bag, there was excitement in New Delhi about how to break it. Every known, time-worn PIB tool was considered, and cast aside.
The prime minister said he will announce it in a tweet.
Who is traveling with the president
- First Lady Michelle Obama
- USTR Michael Froman
- Commerce secretary Penny Pritzker
- National Security Adviser Susan Rice
- Counselor to the president John Podesta (who appears headed for a senior position in a possible Hillary Clinton campaign)
- Minority leader (leader of Democrats in the House of representatives) Nancy Pelosi
- Senator (D) Mark Warner, co-chair of the India caucus
- Representative (D) Joe Crowley, former co-chair of India caucus
- Representative Ami Bera (D), the only Indian American in the House, and the new co-chair of the India caucus
- A team of business leaders and CEOs
Tentative travel/event schedule
Obama leaves DC with his team on the night of 23-24
January 25, Sunday
Reaches Delhi on Sunday morning
Ceremonial reception, with inspection of guards at Rashtrapati Bhavan
Homage at Mahatma Gandhi’s samadhi at Raj Ghat
Hyderabad House for delegation level talks on an entire range of issues let by the President and Prime Minister Modi.
State dinner at Rashtrapati Bhavan, attended by the President and First Lady
January 26, Monday
Republic Day parade. Both the President and First Lady attend the parade, stay for the entire show. White House officials compared the long “public exposure” to the presidential inaugurations, which last for hours, and include parades. Nothing unusual, they noted.
They will attend all related ceremonial events, possibly (possibly, because it was not specified by the White House officials) the President’s At Home, an elegant affair on the lawns of the sprawling Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Not clear of the timing, before or after the At Home, but the Prime Minister and the President will meet business leaders and CEOs, for a lengthy interaction — CEOs’ forum, round-table.
January 27, Tuesday
President Obama plans to do a policy speech about relations with India. But HT could not ascertain if it will be streamed live from his hotel room or a public event.
Visitors leave for Agra.