A visit to the White House

It’s a rare honor to be included in White House state visits for world leaders- but India Currents received an invitation to do just that.

“I still can’t believe it,” said India Currents publisher Vandana Kumar who was invited to participate in events for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his very first head-of-state visit to the U.S.

It’s an extraordinary moment given that 18 years ago in 2005, the U.S. denied Modi a visa for failing to stop communal riots in Gujarat.

In a remarkable turnaround, now PM Modi was feted at the White House and in Congress in only the third head-of-state visit hosted by the Biden administration. France and South Korea were the other two nations so honored.

White House press briefing

Along with India Currents managing director Vijay Rajvaidya, Vandana Kumar attended the welcome reception on the White House lawn as well as a press briefing where Modi and Biden took questions from the media. According to news reports, Biden coaxed Modi into answering reporters’ questions – an unusual turn of events given that Modi has not held a press conference since he became PM in 2014.

Vandana Kumar reporting from the White House as the crowd cheers for PM Modi (video courtesy: Vandana Kumar)

Modi arrived to enthusiastic cheers from members of the Indian diaspora who had shown up in droves to see the Indian PM. “It was unbelievable to see how far people had traveled, at their own expense, to stand for hours in the drizzling rain to attend this short event at the White House,” commented Kumar.

The reception launched with a performance by the University of Pennsylvania’s famed desi acapella group Penn Masala who sang ‘Jashn-e-Bahaara/Viva La Vida.’

Vibha Janakiraman, a student of the Julliard School and a 2023 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, performed Kreisler’s Recitativo and Scherzo at the ceremony. A parade of Indian and American flags was followed by a salute from the U.S. Navy, Airforce, Army, and Coastguard.

Once President Biden and Prime Minster Modi arrived, the band played Jana Gana Mana, the Indian national anthem, as a 21-gun salute could be heard. Both leaders warmly greeted each other before entering the White House for bilateral talks.

The press conference was held a couple of hours later.

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The State Department luncheon

Vandana Kumar was also invited to an exclusive luncheon for the Indian Prime Minister hosted by the State Department on June 23, where she met Congresswoman and ex-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, as well as senior advisor Neera Tanden, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, and Congressman Ami Bera. The event was hosted by VP Kamala Harris, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, and the Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.

At her table, Kumar was joined by Foreign Secretary of the Republic of India Vinay Kwatra, Ambassador Victoria Nuland, and the CEOs of Honeywell, Mastercard, and VMware. Other guests included long-time India Currents supporter MR Rangswami of Indiaspora.

Also in attendance were former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, industrialists Mukesh and Nita Ambani, philanthropist Chandra Tandon, and Indra Nooyi, among other movers and shakers.

In her welcome address, VP Kamala Harris said, “As I look around this room, I am struck by the extraordinary impact Indian Americans have had on our country in every facet of life.” 

She acknowledged the historic number of United States Congressmembers with Indian heritage, known popularly as the ‘Samosa Caucus.’ They include Representatives Ami Bera, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, Raja Krishnamoorthi, and Shri Thanedar.
Harris noted how Indian Americans had made their mark, from the C-suites of American companies to neighborhood businesses, from the studios of Hollywood to university research labs across our country.

“The history and teachings in India and of India have not only influenced me, they, of course, have shaped the entire globe,” said Harris, adding that India had inspired millions of people around the world throughout history, “whether through philosophy and theology, the power of civil disobedience, or the commitment to democracy.” 
Harris concluded by thanking PM Modi for his leadership role in helping India emerge as a global power in the 21st century. 

Pani Poori and Thomas Jefferson

Lunch was prepared by up-and-coming chef and restauranter Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina. TIME magazine listed Irani as one of the ’31 people changing the south.’ In 2022, Chai Pani was named outstanding restaurant by the James Beard Foundation. Irani also is a five-time James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef, Southeast.

The all-vegetarian menu featured samosas as appetizers and millet khichadi as entree, with mango halva for dessert and masala chai to follow.

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A chat with Modi

Kumar even got to have a one-on-one conversation with PM Modi where they chatted in Hindi about Gujarat, Vijay Rajvaidya’s padayatra, train tours tracing the 12 Jyotirling temples, and the path taken by the Hindu deity Rama. Mr. Modi was quite surprised that Vijay, at 70 years of age, had chosen to walk rather than take the train.

“The interesting thing was that when he was speaking with me he was fully engaged. He did not speak in generalities. He was paying attention to what I said, and asked follow-up questions,” Vandana noted. “This is a rare trait. Very charismatic.”

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According to Kumar, there were about 200 invited guests in the room, and the press was asked to leave after the speeches and toasts by Secretary of State Blinken, Vice President Harris, and PM Modi.

“I felt like pinching myself to make sure I was actually in that room. It has been an incredible couple of days,” said Vandana Kumar, summing up her experience.

Look out for a follow-up article on India/ US bilateral agreements next week.