“I greatly value my very strong relationship with Prime Minister Modi,” Trump says
WASHINGTON, DC: ”Diwali,” the festival of lights, came early at the White House as President Donald Trump lit the “diya” (traditional Indian lamp) in the Oval Office on a crisp afternoon for early Fall.
“We wish all of America’s Hindus and everyone who celebrates Diwali a joyous holiday and blessings of light, goodness and prosperity throughout the New Year,” Trump said, in a video released soon after the ceremony. Diwali is the most popular festival in India celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and some Buddhists. It signifies the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance.
Trump is the second president to light the Diwali diya in the Oval Office following Obama in 2016.
Looking on at the ceremonial lighting, Tuesday, were some 27 Indian-American heavyweights comprising members of the Trump administration, community activists and political supporters. Among the special guests were: Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the United Nations; Seema Verma, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; Gopal Khanna, director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; Shalabh Kumar, founder and president of the Republican Hindu Coalition, and his god-daughter Manasvi Mamgai.
“I was deeply honored to be joined by so many administration officials and leaders of the Indian-American community to celebrate Diwali,” Trump said. “As we do so, we especially remember the people of India, the home of the Hindu faith, who have built the world’s largest democracy. I greatly value my very strong relationship with Prime Minister Modi,” he underscored.
“Diwali is one of the most important celebrations in the Hindu religion. A time of peace and prosperity for the New Year, it is a tradition that is held dear by more than one billion Hindus worldwide and more than two million Hindus in the United States. It is also celebrated by millions of Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains in America, India and around the world,” he said.
The president lauded the “incredible contributions” by Indian-Americans to the US and to the world, emphasizing they have made “extraordinary contributions to art, science, medicine, business and education. America is especially thankful for its many Indian-American citizens who serve bravely in our armed forces and as first responders in communities throughout our great land,” he said.
Noting that “the lighting of the diya is typically celebrated by families in their homes,” Trump said, “Today, we proudly celebrate this holiday in The People’s House. In doing so, we reaffirm that Indian-Americans and Hindu-Americans are truly cherished, treasured and beloved members of our great American family.”
The president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, who will be leading the US delegation at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, November 28-30, in Hyderabad, participated in the ceremonial lighting of the lamp.
Journalists, however, were left in the lurch when, at the last minute, the White House announced that the diya lighting ceremony will be closed to the press. No explanation was given to reporters who had lined up on the portico outside the Oval Office, overlooking the Rose Garden.
Speaking to us about the ceremony, Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said, “This is a tremendous event. The president showed his commitment to the Indian-American community. It is his understanding that Indian-Americans have made a tremendous contribution not just to this administration with people like Ajit Pai, Seema Verma, Nikki Haley, but also tremendous achievements throughout the United States in many fields such as medicine, finance, and business.”
“The president talked about how this is the celebration of light over darkness and that’s a really important thing to take away. We want that for our country, not just for Indian-Americans, but for all Americans, all people who love freedom and peace throughout the world,” Shah said.
The top Indian-American White House official affirmed the Indian diaspora is “a natural Republican constituency,” noting that its members believe in free markets, many have made tremendous achievements in medical, science and other fields, they relate to the entrepreneurial spirit and small business investments that the President is very committed to. They believe in the President’s agenda when it comes to issues like tax reform, Shah added.
“So, there is a deep commitment among Indian Americans to this presidency,” he emphasized.
We asked Shah about some media reports which mention a Diwali dinner hosted by President Trump at the White House for 200 Indian-Americans. Debunking such erroneous stories, he made it clear that the diya lighting ceremony is the only Diwali function at the White House. “There is some unconfirmed reporting which is inaccurate,” he said. “Today’s event is how this president, this White House is going to be commemorating Diwali.”
It is noteworthy that former President Obama celebrated Diwali at the White House for the first time in 2009, and former First Lady Michelle Obama continued the tradition in 2013. Both events were held in the ornate East Room and packed with 240 eminent guests.
(This post has been updated.)