The entire nation is geared up for Bill Clinton's visit. At Dalal Street, the hawkers have agreed to clear out for a week and keep the streets clean and uncluttered; in Agra, the Taj Mahal and its precincts are being scrubbed before his arrival; and in Cyberabad turkey sandwiches and other goodies are being readied for him.
Newspapers report that the babus in Delhi are all a-flutter trying to figure out if Clinton would want to meet dull, dhoti-clad politicians or svelte actresses and models at the various banquets hosted in his honour. Everyone is eager to welcome the first US president to visit India in 22 years.
The clean-up operation will ensure that Indian images, which will be beamed across the globe, will be a tad less messy than normal. But what does India really hope to gain from Clinton's visit?
There will certainly be the symbolic show of a greater thaw in Indo-US relations. There is also the expectation that the last of the sanctions will be withdrawn. Then there is the mutual belief that a presidential visit would trigger off greater investment and better business relations between the two countries.
The stock market was rather gung-ho about this possibility and the index had jumped for a few days on the expectation that Clinton would usher in nearly $ 1 billion of foreign institutional investment from his country. But in the last few days punters too seem to have realised than the visit of an out-going president has only so much significance. This sobering realisation has seen share prices tumble in all but the infotech, communications and entertainment or ICE scrips.
The stockmarkets reduced their expectations in line with what one can realistically expect in every other area. To many of us, the massive media coverage of the growing population of Silicon Valley billionaires, who have captured chunks of the American IT industry, has distorted the picture of India's importance to America. Yes, the number of hugely successful Indians in the United States has increased and they are also playing a bigger role in influencing its India policy, but India is not even on the radars of most Americans.
To many of those who know a little about the Indian sub-continent, it remains, what Clinton called, "the most dangerous place on earth". The image is probably enhanced by companies like Enron who have been making a big deal about tying up projects in the backdrop of "communal strife, bomb blasts, policy changes, economic adversity" and more lately "US economic sanctions and mid-term elections".
Richard Haas, a director of the Brookings Institutions in the US and an expert on contemporary American foreign policy, seemed to confirm this view. He was invited by India's leading trade organisation, the Confederation of Indian Industry to speak in Bombay last week.
Haas was candid in saying that India should not expect miracles. He seemed to suggest that the biggest outcome of Clinton's visit would be the massive media coverage that it would trigger. Television cameras trailing Clinton would carry pictures of India, as it really is, into American homes.
The American television networks and the newspapers are sending a massive press contingent to cover the event and they are boning up their knowledge of the country and also scouting around for special interest stories that would make their trip worthwhile. Even schools and colleges would tend to have special discussions on India during the presidential visit, says Haas.
From that point of view, the massive clean-up in preparation of Clinton's visit seems worth the effort. After all, India seems to hit the international headlines only during tragedies such as Bhopal, Latur, the so-called plague epidemic in Surat, bomb blasts, communal violence, hijacking, testing of nuclear devices or the war with Pakistan.
How little Americans know of India becomes painfully obvious when academics, such as Haas, continue to speak of India on par with Pakistan, discounting the vast difference in size, and the economic, social and political status.
Haas said that Indians may dislike this fact, but most Americans, are not even aware of India as the land of rope tricks, snake charmers and elephants. Those are British and European images. The Americans, he says, feel closer to China because of the flood of Chinese exports in American shopping malls and the constant coverage of China by the US media.
India should use this opportunity to initiate a dialogue with the US on several key policy issues. These may include the setting up of a free trade zone between India and the US, and bilateral discussions on several sticky trade issues like Super 301 and the US policy on Indian textile exports.
He suggests that Clinton's visit is a good opportunity for India to discuss issues such as trade treaties, environmental regulations, alternative safety nets for workers or World Bank and IMF intervention in the economies of member countries. He also believes it is in India's interest to counter the image of being "the most dangerous place on earth" by initiating several levels of dialogue with Pakistan.
It would seem that the best that India can expect out of Clinton's visit is publicity, image enhancement and improved awareness. The huge presidential entourage has several powerful officials and businessmen making their first visit to this country. The sights, sounds and images that they will carry will pave the way for future dialogue and discussion.
It will also allow American policy-makers to get a better perspective of India as a potential market and business partner for US companies. India needs to impress on the Americans that problems with Pakistan and the Kashmir issue pose no threat to India's economic stability and democracy.
From the business perspective, it is rather foolish to dub India (along with Pakistan) one of the most dangerous places on earth. In fact, the Indian economy seems set for an information technology-led transformation and growth, despite political chaos and absence of a consensus on reforms and liberalisation.
US companies, not just the multinationals but middle-level entities too, can only benefit if they take India more seriously.