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Obama's state dinner shows heightened profile of Indian Americans

The guest list included many people of Indian descent -- not only public figures but also donors to Obama's 2008 campaign.

November 26, 2009|By Andrew Zajac

Reporting from Washington — President Obama's state dinner for India's prime minister was a platform to lavish attention on a key strategic ally. It also underscored the emergence of Indian Americans as civic and political leaders -- and increasingly important sources of campaign money.

The 320-person guest list for Tuesday's event was in some ways a traditional amalgam of politicians, diplomats, celebrities and heavyweight donors.

But the dozens of Indian Americans on the list attested to that group's heightened profile. They included author Deepak Chopra; TV medical journalist Dr. Sanjay Gupta; and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican.

Presidents of both parties have used state dinners to reward donors, and Tuesday's invitation list included at least 28 top Obama fundraisers.

One, Balvinder Singh, is a Chicago carpet store owner and community leader. Singh said he supported Obama because he liked his call to heal racial divides.

"He didn't need to invite me," Singh said. "I'm a nobody. . . . But he knows who his friends are."

Another top fundraiser on the guest list, Vinai Thummalapally, was a friend of Obama's at Occidental College who raised at least $100,000. Earlier this year, Obama named him ambassador to Belize.

Invitee Preeta D. Bansal, a onetime solicitor general of New York state and a corporate attorney, raised at least $100,000, and was appointed general counsel of the Office of Budget and Management and Budget.

Although at least some invitations may have been thank-yous for political support, they were also smart international politics, said Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute at George Washington University.

"The president is showing the prime minister of India that people whose ancestry is in his country are important to him. It's not simply paying them a favor," Malbin said. "It's an intelligent diplomatic move."

But Sheila Krumholz, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said: "This is a hot ticket that didn't just go to anybody. Money buys access and . . . the opportunity to plead your case and curry favor."

As a candidate, Obama was careful to apologize after his campaign circulated what he termed a "stupid" and "caustic" memo that referred to his main Democratic rival as "Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)."

The reference to the Indian state alluded to Clinton's joking comments that she was so popular among Indians that she could easily win a Senate seat there.

Clinton, now secretary of State, attended the dinner.

Alexander C. Hart in the Washington bureau and Rick Pearson in Chicago contributed to this report.

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