‘I am sure every effort will be made to showcase Rashtrapati Bhavan to President Trump.’
IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi with United States President Donald J Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, February 24, 2020. Photograph: MEA/Flickr
After all the vivid images from the world’s largest stadium and the Taj Mahal, official meetings with the prime minister in Delhi, culminating with the State banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan will be centrestage for United States President Donald J Trump on Tuesday.
“The State banquet is an important diplomatic event and marks the climax of a State visit,” says Ambassador Venu Rajamony, India’s envoy to The Netherlands and then President Pranab Mukherjee’s press secretary during then US president Barack Obama’s visit in January 2015.
All official engagements will begin with a ceremonial reception for the US president and the first lady hosted by President Ram Nath Kovind and his wife Savita Kovind on Tuesday morning at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
This will be followed by discussions between the prime minister and President Trump at Hyderabad House, venue for all inter-governmental meetings.
The Presidential banquet hosted by President Kovind on Tuesday evening will mark the conclusion of President Trump’s State visit to India.
“It is among the most important events in the calendar of the visiting dignitary as it marks the end of official interactions,” says Ambassador Rajamony who accompanied Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima on their five-day State visit to India in October 2019.
Formal speeches by both Presidents form an important part of the dinner. Normally there is a meeting between the two Presidents before the banquet.
IMAGE: Then US President Barack Obama greets Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi at the State dinner then President Pranab Mukherjee hosted for POTUS and FLOTUS, January 25, 2015. Photograph: Press Information Bureau
Presidents Obama and Mukherjee met in the main part of Rashtrapati Bhavan, after which Obama followed Mukherjee into the ceremonial hall for dinner.
One of the largest-ever banquets hosted at Rashtrapati Bhavan was for Barack and Michelle Obama. President Mukherjee’s office was inundated with requests for a seat at that table.
The record participation resulted in moving the dinner from the Ashoka Hall to the newly-constructed ceremonial hall.
“I am sure something similar will happen this time also. The number of people attending the dinner will be among the largest as compared to visits of other heads of State,” Ambassador Rajamony tells Archana Masih/KhabriBaba.com, speaking from The Hague.
The guest list is usually proposed by the ministry of external affairs and sent to the President’s office for approval. The occasion provides, perhaps, the only opportunity for the guest to meet a cross-section of Indians.
The seating plan is in accordance with the protocol list of the Government of India.
President Trump and President Kovind will sit opposite each other. Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi will sit alongside President Trump.
A large number of guests are invited from all walks of life, including ministers, senior government officials like the national security adviser, members of Parliament and business leaders.
A certain number of the US delegation will also be invited depending on the size of the banquet — the India and American side would be seated side by side in order of seniority.
IMAGE: Then President A P J Abdul Kalam with then US President George W Bush and First Lady Laura Bush at Rashtrapati Bhavan, March 2, 2006. Photograph: Photograph: Jim Watson/Getty Images
A lot of work goes into deciding the menu which is the centerpiece of the banquet. The American embassy provides a list of items the guests cannot eat, allergies, dietary preferences etc. The chefs at Rashtrapati Bhavan then prepare a menu that is approved.
On occasions, a top hotel chef could be invited to take charge of the food.
The gifts for the guests are decided by the MEA and Rashtrapati Bhavan.
“An attempt is made to make the gifts unique and special keeping in mind the visiting dignitary’s interest and taste,” says Ambassador Rajamony.
President Mukherjee presented President Obama a book on the birds on the presidential estate on Raisina Hill and a photobook on that POTUS’s visit.
He presented Michelle Obama a hand embroidered pashmina shawl and tea set.
Since President Obama was the guest of honour on India’s biggest national celebration — the Republic Day — there were many points of contact and interactions between both Presidents.
“President Obama was extremely friendly and warm and tried to make conversation with everyone. He was very relaxed and curious about India,” says Ambassador Rajamony who served at India’s embassy in Washington, DC in the mid-2000s.
Like all guests to Rashtrapati Bhavan, Obama too was impressed with its history and architecture.
It is now a practice to light up Rashtrapati Bhavan for State dinners. It is a sight to behold!
The visiting dignitary is usually welcomed in the Ashoka Hall, one of the most beautiful and historic parts of Rashtrapati Bhavan. The banquet hall where the dinner is held adjoins Ashoka Hall.
“I am sure every effort will be made to showcase Rashtrapati Bhavan to President Trump depending on how much time he has,” says Ambassador Rajamony, adding, “In my view, he will return home very impressed.”