The barrel-chested state department veteran looked at the hall, peering over his glasses. And with a thin smile on his lips, he said, in a voice like actor Martin Sheen's: “Wow, so many people for a think tank paper.”
Former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage was looking at a packed hall, and a big one used mostly for banquets and large galas at the Newseum, a museum dedicated to media.
The event was the presentation of a paper on relations with India as a lead up to President Barack Obama's visit there next month. An impressive bank of television cameras stared back at Armitage.
In a city never short of excitement, specially in its cookies-and-coffee section of think tankers, there is an unmistakable buzz about India and not only because a handful of its residents are of Indian origin.
President Obama reaches India on November 6 for a visit that has been described as “transformational” and a “defining moment” in the history of the world's two largest democracies.
Obama also becomes the first US president to visit India in the first term of the presidency; all others went in their second term, when there’s wasn’t much time left in office for them to do anything remotely memorable. As the visit approaches, the buzz is getting louder.
Almost every day, somewhere in DC, there is a talk or a panel discussion about India, India and the US or, a latecomer to the game, India in its hyphenated avatar with Pakistan. The buzz ranges from simple curiosity about India to hard-headed policy.
While think tanks and academic institutions releasing reports and holding events prior to a major presidential visit is not uncommon in Washington, observers say the Indian trip is generating a lot more debate and ideating than most overseas trips by Obama.
It was again a packed hall that greeted Indian ambassador Meera Shankar at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, and not one question was about her exquisite sari.
How was your career as a woman diplomat? Was it easy? How does India deal with Pakistan? China? Myanmar?
The older, policy wonks at the Newseum event wanted to hear a bipartisan panel's report on what India and the US should do to reinvigorate a relationship that some believed was stalling.
The authors of the report included Armitage, of course, but also Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary for political affairs who is credited with being one of the main architects of the India-US agreement on civilian nuclear technology.
“There is definitely a buzz about India,” said Richard Fontaine, CNAS senior fellow who co-authored the report with Armitage and Burns. And it's not just because of the president's visit. If it was just about the visit, he argued, it should self-destruct soon after.
Work on their paper, Fontaine said, began almost a year ago, when the presidential visit was only an expression of intent, without dates or a timeframe. Fontaine believes there is an abiding interest in India, and its ties with the US. And about time. This city was getting obsessed with China. “We needed to get going on India.”
And people are listening. The CNAS report release was widely attended by officials from both countries — Indian embassy people and several serving officers from a variety of US government departments.
Vinod Jain, a University of Maryland professor whose book on Indian investments in the US is held as the last word on the subject, believes it's all about markets, money. Jain also runs a think tank, which hosted Teresita Schaffer, a widely respected state department veteran and head of the south Asia wing of the Centre for Strategic International Studies on Thursday.
He agrees there is a buzz, but added it's been around for at least two years. He is very much a part of the buzz brigade.
To add a degree of authenticity he made a special effort to get samosas for the Schaffer talk. “I went really far to get the samosas,” Jain said to any and all visitors to the talk.
But it wasn’t the samosas but the buzz about India that was the biggest pull for the talk. And there are more talks and events in the pipeline including one that seeks to do a reality check on India-US relations.
It’s slated for Monday. Watch this space for what happened.