Serial Bus

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Happy Diwali and Sal Mubarak

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Obama scored another first. No, not the first American president to win the Nobel in the first year of presidency. That too – but perhaps more sanguinely, the first American president to light a ceremonial diya at White House on occasion of Diwali. He also recorded a video message to convey Diwali greetings to a cross-section of minority groups in the US of Indian heritage. As I watched his message, I thought of all the possible machinations in the background that would have culminated in Obama recording the message.

I am an avid fan of the West Wing. The show unravels the goings-on behind a typical day at the White House. Something like the President sending a message on Diwali does not happen impromptu – it is preceded by weeks of jostling, planning, debating and wrangling amongst the advisers of the President. So, guess why and how the Diwali greetings happened? Here is what (might have) happened….

Kalpen Modi (Kal Penn in his new avatar), Associate Director at White House Office of Public Engagement, had lunch with Valerie (Jarrett), Senior Adviser and Assistant to the President on Public Engagement, sometime after 15 August 2009. The President had just released messages congratulating Indian and Pakistan on their respective Independence anniversaries. Kalpen explained to Valerie how the messaging from White House towards Indian community needs to get stronger. The Indian-American community in the US could use some love from the Democrat administration – also, Obama’s appeal in India could be leveraged to further strenghen ties with a growing economy. Valerie wondered how. Kalpen mentioned how Diwali could be the right occasion – the festival of lights celebrated by the Indian community worldwide. Presidents had addressed the public for Thanksgiving, Christmas and other such festivals in the past. However, a President had never participated in a Diwali celebration before. Obama fit the bill.

In the next meeting with his top team, Valerie proposed the strategy behind Diwali messaging. Rahm (Emanuel) and David (Axelrod) supported the idea however suggested that Obama’s participation should be seen as inclusive of other communities also and should not be directed at just followers of Hinduism. Obama liked the idea and wondered if Valerie could speak with Jon (Favreau) and craft the right message.

Just ahead of the press briefing that day, Valerie saw Jon huddled with Robert (Gibbs) in the hallway discussing what to feed into the news cycle regarding Obama’s upcoming speech to the Congress on healthcare. Valerie indicated to Jon that they needed to speak as Jon headed back to office. Jon was busy giving some finishing touches to Obama’s healthcare speech but he agreed to stop by Valerie’s office later that day.

When Jon came over, Kalpen was already in Valerie’s office. Valerie mentioned her conversation with the President and requested Jon to work with Kalpen to create a suitable message.

Being buddies, Kalpen and Jon met over dinner that day near the Dupont Circle and talked about the Diwali message. Rashida (Jones), Jon’s girlfriend, joined them as well. Jon’s understanding of the festival was limited but Kalpen filled him in. In order to make the message more inclusive, Jon wondered if Diwali was a special occasion for other communities too. Kalpen mentioned how Diwali was significant day for Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs too. Rashida remembered several vivid details of the festival as well, thanks to her experiences in India and her dabbling in the past with Hinduism. She suggested that, aside from the personal message, the President should also light a ceremonial diya at a White House function with Vedic chants in the background. Jon and Kalpen loved the idea and agreed to take it to Valerie.

Over the next couple of weeks, Jon crafted a message to be delivered by the President with suggestions on the draft from Kalpen. Valerie approved Jon’s draft and the ceremonial diya idea. At the next meeting with the top team, Obama loved the diya idea and later, made only a couple of changes to the draft.

On the appointed day, Obama recorded the video message that had been fed into the prompter and then headed over to the East Room where he lit the diya while a Hindu priest chanted mantras. With the fun over, Rahm whisked Obama into the Situation Room to discuss some pressing matters regarding the war in Afghanistan where General Jones and Joint Chiefs were waiting for him.


Written by serialbus

October 25, 2009 at 1:58 pm

One Response

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  1. Wow Article , I thought it was marvelous

    I look ahead to more great postings like this one. Does This Site have a RSS I can subscribe to for new posts?


    November 24, 2009 at 9:35 am

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