It looks like India is fast becoming a popular holiday destination, not just for rich and famous celebs like Lindsay Lohan and Liz Hurley, but for the world’s power elite as well. The last fortnight of December saw the second most powerful man in the US, Barack Obama’s chief of staff and key aide Rahm Emanuel, relaxing in India with his wife, three kids and another couple and their daughter.
Their itinerary included Rajasthan, Agra and Corbett National Park. Normally leaky government channels managed to keep the high profile visit a tightly-held state secret almost till the very end. It was “outed” only on their final stop in Delhi whose eyes and ears never miss anything, especially a VVIP visitor.
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Hosting Emanuel in Delhi was an interesting challenge for the Manmohan Singh government and the PMO rose to the occasion with some out-of-the-box thinking to amuse a visitor who is obviously key to building a rapport with Obama. When the PM visited Washington in November, Emanuel had spoken about his upcoming holiday in India and expressed his desire to see Delhi’s famous Walled City. Accordingly, the PMO arranged a trip to Khari Baoli and the PM’s media advisor Harish Khare was deputed to take Emanuel and his entourage around the crowded wholesale market.
The White House chief of staff is apparently a spice connoisseur and he happily spent the morning sniffing and examining 12 varieties of red chillies, nine varieties of turmeric, shikakai, reetha and other exotic roots and powders. The sights and smells held him spellbound and he didn’t turn a hair at the crowds milling around in the narrow lanes.
Surprisingly, nor did his Secret Service security agents. Unlike our SPG, which believes in heavyhanded methods like sanitising entire neighbourhoods for a VIP visit, US security takes crowds in its stride and works around them. Maybe the SPG should pick up some tips on how not to be obtrusive.
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The hurly-burly of the old city was followed by lunch at Maurya Sheraton’s famed Bukhara restaurant, hosted by National Security Advisor M K Narayanan. The afternoon was spent strolling through Rashtrapati Bhavan’s elegant Mughal Garden. Evening was private time for Emanuel to ring in the new year with his family and friends. And so ended an important personal visit.
An official described the trip as an “intensely private” one but can a key Obama aide like Emanuel be spared for a fortnight just to vacation in India? PMO sources are tightlipped but there is speculation that Emanuel flew out to do a reccee for a visit by Obama and decided to combine business with pleasure. In which case, we can expect the US President to come calling very soon.
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It’s never pure vacation for the powerful. Even as he played tourist, Emanuel kept a close eye on a crucial vote in the US Senate which was scheduled to consider Obama’s controversial healthcare reform bill on December 21. The White House needed 60 votes to get the bill through. With the Democrats numbering 58, the government was two votes short. Emanuel had tied up one independent vote before coming to India. He bagged the critical 60th vote from here over telephone, using the “battering ram” political skills for which he is known.