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Aapka Swagat Hai, Obama tells PM at star-studded dinner

Under a glowing white marqee with a glass ceiling and chandeliers, US President Barack Obama toasted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the lawns of the White House at the first state dinner of his presidency to celebrate the "great and growing friendship" between India and the US.

world Updated: Nov 25, 2009 23:15 IST

Under a glowing white marqee with a glass ceiling and chandeliers, US President Barack Obama toasted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the lawns of the White House at the first state dinner of his presidency to celebrate the "great and growing friendship" between India and the US.

"Aapka Swagat Hai (you are welcome)," said the daal-loving Obama, in a slightly accented Hindi, setting the perfect mood for Washington's most discussed social event, symbolising romance and friendship between the world's great democracies.

"In India, some of life's most precious moments are often celebrated under the cover of a beautiful tent. It's a little like (that) tonight," Obama who turned out in a full black-tie tux told the Indian prime minister.

"We have incredible food, the music, and are surrounded by great friends," he said.

"It's been said that the most beautiful thing in the universe are the starry heavens above us and the feeling of duty within us. Mr. Prime Minister, today we worked to fulfil our duty to bring our countries closer together than ever before."

"Under the stars, tonight we celebrate the friendship between India and the US. We celebrate the great and growing partnership between India and the US," Obama said to ringing applause from a star-studded audience of over 320 guests.

Chants of A.R. Rehman's 'Jai Ho' resonated in the marquee as the beautiful and the powerful partook a predominantly vegetarian dinner, save for prawns. It was a sartorial feast too, with American women rediscovering the calm magic of the Indian sari, and giving a tough competition to hottest designer labels in the town.

The guest list at the Obama presidency's first state dinner was an eclectic one, and packed under the majestic marquee were some of the most powerful, wealthiest and talented Indians and Americans.

Over 300 guests arrived for the dinner hosted on the lawns of the White House as their names were announced with Oscar-style fanfare. They posed before the paparazzi, smiled, traded small talk, with society columnists dissecting every small detail of what they wore and what they thought.

Actors Alfre Woodard and Blair Underwood, legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg and Indian-American auteur M. Night Shyamalan, musician A.R. Rehman, who composed the Oscar-wining score for blockbuster "Slumdog millionaire", competed for attention with writer Jhumpa Lahiri, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, author Thomas Friedman and new age guru Deepak Chopra.

The entire American establishment, including Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Obama's trusted aides like Rahm Emmanuel and Valerie Jarrett were among those present at this power-packed gathering.

"Everyone looks great; we're feeling great," White House social secretary Desiree Rogers said as she gingerly walked to the dinner venue on the South Lawns.

Indian billionaires Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani, high profile, high achieving Indian-Americans like Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, the young and powerful Anish Goel, South Asia expert in Obama's National Security Council, Rajat Gupta of McKinsey fame were among those who cheered as Obama pledged to take India-US ties to a new high.

Invoking Diwali celebrations and Guru Nanak's birthday he hosted at the White House, Obama lauded over two million Indians who are enriching American life in all corners of the country.

An admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, Obama recalled fondly the legendary Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and said "his words speak to our hopes tonight".

"It's the bond of friendship between a president and a prime minister who are bound by the same unshakeable spirit of possibility and brotherhood that transformed both our nations, the spirit that gave rise to movements led by Gandhi and King, and which are the reason that both of us can stand here tonight," he said.

The giagantic white shamiana resonated with convivial cheer as Obama proposed the toast to "great triumphs and achievements" that await the two countries as they forge a twenty-first century partnership.

Manmohan Singh warmly reciprocated Obama's greetings, saying he was overwhelmed by the warmth of his hospitality and the courtesy extended to them and the grace and charm of First Lady Michelle Obama.

In a speech punctuated by applause, Manmohan Singh showered praise on Obama, saying his journey to the White House has captured the imagination of millions of people in India.

If Obama invoked Gandhi and Nehru, Manmohan Singh recalled the words of Abraham Lincoln in a heart-felt tribute to the man thirty years his junior who shattered the glass ceiling to become the first African-American president of the US.

"In the end, it's not the years in your life that count, it's the life in your years," he said quoting Lincoln.

Manmohan Singh also praised Obama for winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

He said, "The coveted award was a recognition of the healing touch you have provided and the power of your idealism and vision."

Conjuring a robust picture of India-US relations, Manmohan Singh, who is the third Indian prime minister to be accorded the signal honour of the state dinner, said the two countries must find new pathways of international cooperation that respond more effectively to grave challenges confronting the world.

"A strong and sustained engagement between our two countries is good for our people and the world. We are embarking on a new phase of our partnership," he said.