Obama toasts Singh, India and 'the triumphs, challenges that await us'

Obama toasted “to the future that beckons us all” at the highly-anticipated state dinner, the first of Obama’s presidency. The president was quoting Jawaharlal Nehru, a leader of India’s independence movement.

“Let us answer its call, and let our two great nations recognize all the triumphs and challenges that await us,” Obama said.

Singh and India were chosen for the honor of Obama’s first state dinner to send a signal of how important Obama sees India, a fast growing world power.

Obama and Singh hoisted white wine and expressed hope for continued friendship between their two countries.

In his toast, Singh praised Obama, telling him that his “journey to the White House has captured the imagination of millions and millions of people in India.”

Obama has the need to bolster India’s confidence after his trip to Asia last week, which featured a stop at another emerging power, China. India and China are rivals for world influence who fought a war over territory both countries see as belonging to them.

Former President George W. Bush signed a civil nuclear agreement with India and worked hard to build ties between the two countries, partly to offset China’s growing power.

India has been worried about a lack of attention from the new White House, and was further ruffled by a joint statement from Obama and China’s leader last week that spoke of the need for the U.S. and China to promote peace and stability in South Asia, a neighborhood India sees as its own.

More than 300 guests joined Obama and Singh in a formal tent erected on the South Lawn of the White House. Hollywood celebrities such as Steven Speilberg mingled with members of the news media, administration officials and members of Congress, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

There was also a large contingent of Indian-Americans at the dinner, including the actor Kal Penn, who has joined the administration, and CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, who flirted with becoming the country’s surgeon general.

Obama, who wore a black-tie tuxedo, spoke of how the more than two million Indian Americans “enrich every corner of our great nation – leaders in government, science, industry and the arts –some of whom join us tonight.

“And it’s the bond of friendship between a President and a Prime Minister who are bound by the same unshakable spirit of possibility and brotherhood that transformed both our nations -- a spirit that gave rise to movements led by giants like Gandhi and King, and which are the reason that both of us can stand here tonight.

Singh noted Obama’s winning of the Nobel Peace prize, praising the committee's decision to award Obama for the “power of your idealism and your vision.”

Obama noted the influences of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. who the president said made it possible for both he and Singh to be standing in the tent.

Gandhi, a pioneer of peaceful civil disobedience who inspired King, did not win the Nobel prize. King did, becoming the youngest winner of the prize at that time.

According to reports, First Lady Michelle Obama wore a strapless, floor-length, champagne-colored gown with silver detail by Indian-born designer Naeem Khan.

The First Lady wore ten cream and silver Indian bangles, similar to those on her wrist during a preview of the dinner Tuesday afternoon in the State Dining Room. 

Pool reports said there was no head table at the dinner. President Obama was seated next to Pelosi, and others at his table near the middle of the room included Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Ambassador to India Tim Roemer, Democratic fundraiser and entertainment giant David Geffen and the Speaker’s husband, Paul Pelosi.

Those seated at the First Lady’s table included American Civil Liberties Union attorney Amrit Singh, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, Harvard professor Emma Rothschild, Alma Powell and Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Film director M. Night Shyamalan was seated at Dr. Jill Biden’s table along with Domestic Policy Adviser Melody Barnes and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.).

Singh wished the American people a “very, very happy Thanksgiving,” and quoted former President Abraham Lincoln in telling Obama that “it's not the years your life that count, it is the life in your years.”

“To the health and happiness of President Barack Obama and the First Lady, Mrs. Obama, the friendly people of the United States of America and stronger and stronger friendship between India and the United States of American,” Singh toasted.

Christina Wilkie contributed to this article.