Leftovers? It's left-outs that deserve some dish
For some Indian Americans, Obama's first state dinner isn't too inviting

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009

Sant Singh Chatwal, an Indian hotelier and Democratic donor, noticed a glaring difference between Tuesday night's state dinner in honor of the Indian prime minister and the one he attended in honor of the Indian prime minister back in 2000.

"There were a lot more Indian Americans there last time," Chatwal said, referring to the Clinton administration's outgoing bash, a much larger affair. This year, he said, there seemed to be "mostly White House staffers."

"The Honorable (Mr.) David Axelrod"? Sure. But "the Honorable (Ms.) Alyssa Mastromonaco, White House Office of Scheduling," the ousted counsel Greg Craig and well more than a dozen other White House staffers? Did the preponderance of White House assistants and staffers on the list cause deserving Indian Americans to get bumped on their big night?

As with any party, the guest list is a finite document, and director M. Night Shyamalan, actor-activist Kalpen Modi, CNN's Sanjay Gupta, even Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (a potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate) all made the cut. But omissions included some of the nation's most prominent Indian Americans.

For example, Preet Bharara, the newly named U.S. attorney in Manhattan, did not receive an invitation. Bharara, a former top legal aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer, is the top prosecutor in the district that will try Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

Kumar Barve, the Democratic majority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates, also did not attend. Asked whether he had received an invitation, Barve responded: "You'd think! Given that I am the longest-serving Indian American elected official in U.S. history -- and an early supporter of Obama."

Barve said the White House had asked him to come to an earlier opening ceremony, but he declined, saying he had a prior business engagement.

Surprising many people in the Indian American community was the apparent snub of Neera Tanden, a health-care policy expert at the Department of Health and Human Services who served as Hillary Clinton's policy director in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Barve called Tanden's absence "odd."

Huma Abedin, a senior adviser and longtime traveling aide to Clinton, also did not receive an invitation, although she is half-Indian, on her father's side. She attended a luncheon with Clinton and Vice President Biden earlier in the day, though.

Chatwal said he wasn't complaining. He said he enjoyed his seat next to Indian industrialists and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and appreciated the balance of American and Indian officials.

And some non-Indian attendees assumed the roles of Indian ambassadors.

"I'd assume I was invited because New York City has a quarter of a million of Indians living in it," Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters in New York. He added that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lived in Queens for decades. "You have to ask the president why he invited me, but I assume it was so that I could represent those people."

(In his capacity as New York's Indian emissary, Bloomberg joined his girlfriend, Diana Taylor, at one of the tables of honor with Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president; Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric; Hunter and Kathleen Biden; Honeywell International CEO David Cote; Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell and his wife, Marjorie; and banker Chanda Kochhar.)

Other prominent Indians had previous engagements, such as Atul Gawande, the eminent surgeon, Harvard professor and New Yorker writer whose work President Obama has often touted to health-care policy wonks. According to Gawande's office, the White House extended an invitation, but the doctor had scheduled an operation in Boston and was on call.

Vinod Khosla, a prominent venture capitalist in the energy business who knows Singh well and has met several times with Obama, said he was vacationing with his family in Utah.

"I honestly don't know if I was invited," he said, adding, "If I was invited or not, it's not my kind of thing."

Other VIPs simply had better things to do.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) received an invitation but, according to Larry Cox, his state director, couldn't attend, as he was traveling in Kentucky. Bill Clinton had a previous private engagement in New York, according to the former president's spokesman. And Richard Holbrooke, who is not seen as India's favorite U.S. geopolitical broker, received an invitation. But he opted to attend a luncheon for Singh at the State Department and then left to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family in Telluride, Colo. The State Department's India specialists, Undersecretary of State William Burns and Assistant Secretary Robert O. Blake Jr., attended the dinner.

Ashok Bajaj, the suave owner of the Bombay Club who attended the Clinton state dinner in 2000, said he was invited to a luncheon for the Indian prime minister and his delegation at the State Department. He said there "were a lot of White House people in this one," compared with the event he attended. But Bajaj said he didn't harbor any hard feelings whatsoever. Not a one. And for those who did, he had a suggestion.

"The people who didn't get to go to the White House can always come to the Bombay Club," he said on Wednesday. "It isn't maybe as elegant as last night, but it's still a fine place to dine."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company