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Dinner under the tent for Manmohan Singh; Bill Clinton won't attend

The Obamas will be holding their first state dinner for visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, not in the White House's State Dining Room but under a white marquee erected on the South Lawn. Former president Bill Clinton will not attend, but his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will of course be there.

world Updated: Nov 19, 2009 16:05 IST

The Obamas will be holding their first state dinner for visiting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, not in the White House's State Dining Room but under a white marquee erected on the South Lawn. Former president Bill Clinton will not attend, but his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will of course be there.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle have chosen to go for the marquee -- much like the shamiana at an Indian wedding though not as colourful -- as they plan to host 400 guests, while the State Dining Room can seat no more than 140, media reports said.

The Nov 24 dinner is the third White House dinner for India in the last decade: Bill Clinton hosted one in 2000 for prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, while George W. Bush had one in 2005 for Manmohan Singh and his wife, Gursharan Kaur.

A Clinton spokesman cited by Politico, a Capitol Hill newspaper, said he will not be attending the state dinner honouring India on Tuesday, but gave no reason.

Some guests like Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid too have regretted saying they will be at home for the long Thanksgiving break. Lockheed Martin Corp. CEO Bob Stevens received an invitation, but decided to decline, the Politico said.

Making much of Boehner's regret, Politico said the Republican who complained earlier this month that Obama's White House hasn't invited Republicans over to talk healthcare since April, attended a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II in 2007, when fellow Republican George W. Bush was the president.

The White House has been keeping a tight seal on the state dinner guest list. But according to Politico among the members of the White House cabinet who will attend are Hillary Rodham Clinton; Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who just spent several days in India promoting clean energy; and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice has been invited, as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Invites don't go to only Democrats. Louisiana Governor and Indian-American Bobby Jindal, who gave the Republican response to President Obama's address to Congress earlier this year, is on the list -- and plans to attend, the newspaper said.

Equally of interest: who didn't make the cut? Admiral Michael Mullen, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was not invited, even though the White House has traditionally invited the joint chiefs, Politico said.

Two key California Democrats weren't invited: Senator Dianne Feinstein, one of Obama's biggest superdelegates during his campaign, and Senator Barbara Boxer, who has been key in shepherding Obama's climate initiatives in the Senate.

Democrat senator Ben Nelson, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Republican Senator Susan Collins and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor were also not invited, the paper said.

While the White House isn't confirming anyone on Tuesday's guest list, engraved invitations went out last week. But look for the usual suspects from the Hill: Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senators John Kerry, Daniel Inouye and Dick Lugar, and the administration: Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod and golf buddy Melody Barnes, the Post said.

The all-knowing Politico ran its own wish list of top ten invitees, including industrialis Mukesh Ambani, Bollywood star couple Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and writer-turned activist Arundhati Roy.

West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi too makes it to the wish list as a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi whom Obama holds in high esteem. So do Raj Goyle, a fast emerging young Democratic leader and Raghubir Goyal, ubiquitous White House correspondent of local publication India Globe.

Politico's wish list includes Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist; Tom DeLay, former House majority leader and General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt but misses out on Citi Bank's Indian American chief executive Vikram Pandit.

"The real guest list won't be released until right before the event, and the invitations are out. But that doesn't mean we can't help the White House with a few dream-team," the Politico said.

The White House has invited award-winning African-American chef Marcus Samuelsson to cook the state dinner honouring India. Samuelsson, of the highly regarded Aquavit in New York City, will be working with White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, according to sources in the food world.

The choice of Samuelsson has come somewhat late in a process that began in early summer. White House assistant chef and Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass sampled food at several restaurants - sometimes with social secretary Desiree Rogers - to see whose work might be suitable.

When the selection process shifted to the White House kitchen at the end of last week, Samuelsson had only one rival: Patrick O'Connell from the Inn at Little Washington. Samuelsson did not prepare the tasting himself: he sent his executive chef, Johan Svensson, the Washington Post said.

Though Aquavit serves Swedish food, Samuelsson is well-versed in American cuisine; the title of his latest book is "New American Table". But one source says the state dinner will feature global cuisine, possibly including a curry dish, the Post said, noting the prime minister is described as "an abstemious vegetarian".