NEW DELHI, India — Washington wonks see Sarah Palin's trip to India as a soft launch for her bid for the White House in 2012, but don't read too much into the guest list for the hyped conference, which both Palin's people and the event organizers are only too happy to remind you has included Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. You don't, after all, get elected president by association.
Palin will no doubt receive a warm welcome and some easy laughs in India — an easy touch for anybody prepared to call it a major world power and wolf down a curry or two. But even though she'll appear on the same dais as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the India Today Conclave, an event organized by India Today magazine, the prevailing view here in Delhi is that the speech fest is primarily an exercise in hot air.
"Let me put it this way: There will be no serious political attention paid to what she says, but it will be watched with some curiosity to see what potential faux pas she may make," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.
Palin is unlikely to share a confab with the prime minister. She is on the guest list for the same reason she's invited anywhere. The conclave is not a peace summit; it's a for-profit enterprise designed to boost magazine revenue. And because of the circus that surrounds her — and the chance that she will say something surprising or baffling — Palin puts bottoms in seats.
Based on the title of her address, "My Vision of America," the speech is likely to sound familiar to Palin-watchers in the United States.
“I’m very excited to visit India. Americans have a great respect for the world’s largest democracy," an India Today Conclave press release quoted Palin as saying. “India and the United States are partners in trade and business affairs, and working together our two nations can build a more peaceful and prosperous world.”
But apart from gaffe-watching, the Delhi crowd will be curious to see if Palin dares to push the envelope in criticizing Pakistan to please the local crowd (and, perhaps, Tea Party "patriots" back home). For the live webcast, tune in March 19 between 8 and 9:30 p.m. Indian Standard Time (10:30 a.m. EDT).
Is the event likely to make Palin look good in India? You betcha.
Along with Singh, speaking at the conclave puts her in the company of Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who was instrumental in toppling Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, not to mention Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. And through serendipity, the conference theme, "The Changing Balance of Power," has compelled the event's public relations machine to cast Palin as "one of the contenders for the U.S. presidency" before she even throws her hat in the ring.
It's true that India (and Singh) loved President George W. Bush. But like Nixon once did in China, Bush won hearts with his pathbreaking work to slash through decades of ill-thought American policy and reshape U.S.-India relations — not with his aw shucks charm. And even among the biggest fans of the India-US civilian nuclear agreement that acted as the fulcrum for that new relationship, there were always serious reservations about the Bush Administration's other policies, especially in Iraq.
"He was seen as somebody who was committed to India and was willing to take steps contrary to longterm U.S. policy," said Sibal. "It wasn't an endorsement of the right in America."
Moreover, Palin isn't the first world leader to be going to the Indian well of publicity. She's not only following Bush, Clinton and Obama, but also French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, among others.
"There will be enormous curiosity about her," said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst with Delhi University. "But remember now that [praising India] has been done by several people. Three different U.S. presidents have done that in different circumstances. That's par for the course. So what's new?"
Following Palin's Delhi trip, she'll hop a plane and head for that "other" favorite location of ambitious U.S. politicians: Israel.