Clinton lobs talks ball into Atal court
Satyajit Ray to Sweta, a spread to please India
Famous children & lady who danced
Vote poser to Sonia
Bill-struck MPs jostle for handshake

New Delhi, March 22 
President Bill Clinton today moved closer to the Indian standpoint on subcontinental tensions but put the onus on New Delhi to go the extra distance to resolve them.

In a speech that clearly reflected the visitor’s greater appreciation of India’s concerns, Clinton told a packed sitting of the two Houses of Parliament: “We know the threat of terrorism all too well and we will build with you a system of justice... We share your concern over the course Pakistan is taking but India, as a democracy, has a special opportunity to prove that democracy is about dialogue. I have certainly not come to South Asia to mediate on Kashmir but I hope you will create an opportunity to begin a dialogue with Pakistan. One of the wisest things I have ever been told is that you do not make peace with friends.”

Repeatedly applauded for the warm and from-one-man-to-another tenor of his speech, Clinton also strongly pursued the nuclear non-proliferation line, but again, in suggestive fashion. “To tell you what to do is not my place,” he said, “Only India can determine its interests, only Indians know whether they are safer today than they were before their nuclear experiment, only Indians know what happens when the neighbour responds and that their nuclear policy can have consequences beyond their border. India’s nuclear explosions certainly shook the world but now your initiative on non-proliferation can move the world.”

The flower-bedecked Cen- tral Hall of Parliament buz- zed with excitement all mor- ning, teeming with members of Parliament, present and former, diplomats, dignitaries and senior politicians’ relatives.

Shortly after he came in, escorted by Vice-President Krishan Kant, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi, Clinton met front-ranking Cabinet ministers and senior MPs, including leader of the Opposition Sonia Gandhi and Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, both seated in the front benches.

Also in the front row were senior members of the Clinton Cabinet — secretary of state Madeleine Albright, national security adviser Sandy Berger, and deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott. Alongside sat Chelsea Clinton. India’s best known political scion, Priyanka Gandhi, sat with husband Robert Vadra among other distinguished guests in the galleries. She left as soon as Clinton finished.

Speaking after Clinton’s address, Vajpayee reiterated that even though India remained committed to disarmament and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons “our decision to maintain a minimum credible nuclear deterrent is prompted by a realistic assessment of our security compulsions”.

Vajpayee was also forthright in putting forward India’s problems with an unconditional resumption of dialogue with Pakistan. “India has always tried to develop its relations with its neighbours in an atmosphere of mutual trust and on the basis of mutually advantageous initiatives. Recent developments have unfortunately eroded that relationship of trust with one of them,” he said.

In an unveiled nudge to the US to pin Pakistan down as a wrong-doer, Vajpayee said: “The problem of terrorism with its link to ideologies of extremism and funding through illegal trade in narcotics is one of the biggest challenges facing nation-states. We need to consider whether we are doing enough to strike at the root of this menace, which breeds on hatred and violence and is the very anti-thesis of democracy.”

Clinton, on his part, stressed the commonalities between India and the US and said: “We are, for a variety of reasons, natural allies. Our common interests lie in our love for democracy and liberty and pluralism. I hope this visit of mine will help Americans understand India better and Indians understand America better.” He likened the Indo-US relationship to the elasticity of an Indian raga and said: “The basic framework for friendship is there, and like in a raga, it is upon the players now to improvise and produce a harmonious symphony.”

The US President spoke at length on the new emerging India and emphasised the need for New Delhi to enthusiastically join the process of economic globalisation. Calling globalisation the “central debate of our times”, Clinton said: “Many believe it is divisive and increases the gulf between the rich and the poor. This is a valid fear but I believe it is wrong. Now developing countries and especially democracies will have greater opportunities to go ahead than at any time in the past. Globalisation does not favour countries with licence raj but it does favour countries with panchayati raj.”

He allayed fears of the developing nations getting hurt by globalisation and said: “Sustained global economic progress should be one of the challenges that define our relationship. Disparities are unacceptable and intolerable, this we must undo bec- ause poverty is an affront to humanity.”

Clinton also called for a vibrant Indo-US economic relationship and promised “all our support” to the effort to “end poverty and disease and spread better healthcare and education”.    

New Delhi, March 22 
It was a please-India, please-Indian Clinton who took centrestage in the Central Hall of Parliament this morning. And references to great Indians and things Indian kept recurring in his speech. It was designed to ensure that he walked right into the hearts of the ordinary Indian and gave himself the liberty to do some tough talking couched in a pleasant, friendly tone.

It was Mahatma Gandhi to whom Clinton paid tributes at the very beginning. He expressed, “on behalf of all the people of the United States, our gratitude for the life, the works, the thoughts of Gandhi, without which the great civil rights revolution in the United States would have never succeeded on a peaceful plane”.

Gandhi was immediately followed by Taj Mahal and how he was waiting to go over to Agra. He extolled India’s diversity and complexities saying: “From a distance, India often appears as a kaleidoscope of competing, perhaps superficial images. Is it atomic weapons or ahimsa? A land struggling against poverty and inequality, or the world’s largest middle-class society? Is it still simmering with communal tensions or history’s most successful melting pot? Is it Bollywood or Satyajit Ray? Sweta Shetty or Alla Rakha. Is it the handloom or the hyperlink?”

He praised India’s democratic tradition. “Here is a country where two million people hold elected office in local government.” He went on to harp on India’s ethnic variety and said: “Under trying circumstances you have shown the world how to live with difference.”

Moving on to the economic sphere, Clinton was quick to lay emphasis on India’s information technology revolution. He said: “You embraced information technology and now, when Americans and other big software companies call for consumer and customer support, they’re just as likely to find themselves talking to an expert in Bangalore as one in Seattle.”

Clinton revealed how familiar he was with the previous “licensing raj” and the now predominant “panchayati raj”. His familiarity with India’s problems were all too evident. He said: “Part of the world lives in the information age, part of the world does not even reach the clean water age. And often the two live side by side.” And his knowledge of the Indian context came through when he stressed: “For every economist who preaches the virtues of women’s empowerment, points at first to the achievements of India’s state of Kerala.”

He noted how India was making definite strides. He told Indian parliamentarians: “Last December, India immunised 140 million children against polio, the biggest public health effort in human history. I congratulate you on that. He quoted Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen: “No system of government has done a better job in easing human want, in averting human catastrophes than democracy.”

The speech had been carefully drafted. Any Indian could make out that the President and his aides had done their homework well. Otherwise, how could anyone but a connoisseur say: I have read that one of the unique qualities of Indian classical music is its elasticity. The composer lays down the foundation, a structure of melodic and rhythmic arrangements, but the player has to improvise within that structure to bring the raga to life”.    

New Delhi, March 22 
It was an invitation that few could turn down — a chance to meet President Bill Clinton in the informal ambience of Roosevelt House, at a reception hosted by ambassador Richard Celeste and his wife, Jacqueline Lundquist. And sure enough, Delhi’s beautiful people turned up in full strength, at 10.30 am, as specified on the card — even though the President didn’t arrive until a good two hours later.

But it was well worth the wait. After a short and witty speech, in which he spoke warmly about the contributions of non-resident Indians to American life, and assured us that the world would not be a better place until its two greatest democracies worked together, Clinton plunged into the crowd to do what American politicians do best: press the flesh.

He had a smile and a quick word for everyone, as he worked his way down the line, at the far end of which stood Priyanka Gandhi, flanked by husband Robert Vadra and friend of the family Suman Dubey. While fellow guests speculated as to why the Gandhi daughter had not been invited into the special enclosure in which the American delegates and special guests of the ambassador were sitting, Priyanka was her usual charming and unaffected self, happily posing for pictures with various NRIs and signing autographs for her admirers. One of them, Anita Meattle, produced an autograph book, which belonged to her mother-in-law, which had the signatures of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. With Priyanka signing her name with a flourish, there were now four generations of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty nestling within its pages.

As President Clinton walked past her, ambassador Celeste introduced Priyanka to him with the words “you met her mother yesterday”. It wasn’t really clear if the President made the connection, but he shook hands warmly in any case.

Before the conversation could go any further, however, his attention was arrested by a vision in parrot green: Mallika Sarabhai, who accosted him with the best line of the morning, “I danced for you last night.”

Clinton’s face lit up. “You were absolutely terrific,” he assured Mallika. “In fact, I was telling Chelsea about you.” He looked around, but Chelsea was still some way down the reception line. Someone was despatched to fetch her, and Clinton introduced her to Sarabhai, “Remember, I was telling you about the lady who danced for us last night...” Chelsea remembered: “Yes, he said you were marvellous. I’m sorry I never got a chance to see it.” Sarabhai promptly promised a repeat performance if Chelsea ever came back to India.

Meanwhile, Chelsea had been introduced to Priyanka by Richard Celeste.

“You can talk about being children of famous parents,” he advised jocularly. “Yes, we already did a bit of that the last time I was here,” said Chelsea, who had met Priyanka on her earlier visit to India.

By then, the entire socialite brigade was hovering within hand-shaking distance. There was I.K. Gujral’s daughter-in-law Firoz Gujral in a pastel sari, Rina Dhaka in a net churidar kurta paired with a plastic handbag embossed with a Krishna image — the religious motif apparently helped her get her cell phone past security — Harsh Neotia and his wife, who had flown in from Calcutta for the event, designer Raghuvendra Rathore, looking natty in a bandhgala of his own design, Deepa Mehta, taking a break from her battles with Sunil Gangopadhyay, Nafisa Ali and Shirin Paul. But the belle of the ball was, undoubtedly, Priya Paul. Resplendent in a Tarun Tahiliani-designed corset blouse — with a couple of purple feathers around her décolletage — and chiffon sari, she cut a striking figure. The ambassador’s wife, Jacqueline, who usually sports the best of Indian designers, was dressed in the American mode in honour of the President. But the knee-length blue dress was probably a good idea, given that she had to carry her young son in her arms.

The bureaucracy was represented by Doordarshan CEO Rajiv Ratan Shah, whose daughter is married into an American family with close links to Clinton, and Piyush Mankad, finance secretary to the government of India. The three service chiefs were in attendance, as were former bureaucrats Montek Singh Ahluwalia and former foreign secretaries, Mani Dixit and S.K. Singh. The non-resident Indian lobby was well-represented by such luminaries as Purnendu Chatterjee, better-known as the world’s richest Bengali, who used this opportunity to catch up with his father-in-law, Viren Shah, the Governor of Bengal.

Having spent a half-hour, Clinton left directly for the airport, to head for Agra. And the guests, baking under the blazing sun, could finally seek comfort under the canopies around the swimming pool, as they dug into the snacks laid out at various food counters. Those who still had an appetite left, could dig into cheese quiche, chicken spring rolls, chocolate brownies and fruit tarts. And wash it all down with Diet Coke, flown in all the way from America — quite like the President, in fact.    

New Delhi, March 22 
They met to discuss CTBT, Pakistan, nuclear deterrence and other issues concerning the world. But what surprised Sonia Gandhi was a query by Bill Clinton concerning the Indian National Congress and the electoral system here.

“How come your votes have gone up, but the seats have come down?” was Clinton’s last question to the team headed by Sonia.

Sonia, accompanied by Manmohan Singh, Madhavrao Scindia, Pranab Mukherjee and Natwar Singh, had met Clinton for a 15-minute tete-e-tete at Maurya Sheraton before he addressed Parliament this morning.

When Clinton posed the question, pointing out that this would be “unusual for the US system”, Madhavrao Scindia told him the Indian parliamentary system offered interesting twists. The Congress also had benefited from this in the past, he added. Scindia told the President that even with 24 parties together in an alliance, anti-Congress votes have not fragmented.

Clinton’s interest in the oldest party electrified the atmosphere in the presidential suite, and undoubtedly left the Congress leaders feeling elated. It underscored the fact that the Congress may be out of power, but it was not out in the cold.

The US President was flanked by secretary of state Madeleine Albright, US ambassador Richard Celeste and five other US officials.

A Congress leader who was in the team said the talks were “very good” and “cordial”. The Congress stated its position and “the President responded, showing full understanding”.

Briefing reporters, Pranab Mukherjee later said the talks focused on CTBT and relations with Pakistan, especially in the light of recent developments.

Sonia urged the President to prevail upon Pakistan to desist from exporting terrorism. She asserted that constant encouragement to terrorism by Islamabad had vitiated the atmosphere for dialogue. The Congress president said outstanding problems with Pakistan can be resolved only through bilateral dialogue within the framework of the Simla Agreement. Sonia also emphasised the need for a minimum credible nuclear deterrent to take care of India’s security concerns.

In response, Clinton iterated that India and other countries should sign the CTBT. He also explained his views on nuclear proliferation. On terrorism, Clinton did not specifically mention Pakistan though he agreed that it should be fought, Mukherjee said.

Asked if the Congress felt Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s request to Clinton to take up the question of terrorism with Pakistan amounted to seeking third party interference in Kashmir, Mukherjee replied in the negative.

He said it is a normal, diplomatic practice followed everywhere that a visiting dignitary is apprised of the country’s perception on various issues.    

New Delhi, March 22 
Suddenly the elected representatives of India lost all sense of dignity and decorum and mobbed William Jefferson Clinton like 10-year-old autograph-hunters.

The President had sensed that his speech, despite its concealed barbs, had gone down well. He was walking down the aisle aware he would have to surrender himself to handshakes demanded by the starry-eyed members in the audience.

But then the parliamentarians went berserk. It all began when an MP occupying the seventh seat from the aisle, therefore beyond Clinton’s reach, almost fell on his colleagues closer to the President and then extended his hand. It reached Clinton’s thighs and the accommodating leader pulled it up and down in a slow handshake.

Others followed suit. The anti-English, anti-Clinton Samajwadi MPs beamed at the American President and warmly clutched both his hands. So did the hardliners in the BJP who often decry the American hand in Indian industry.

A Tamil Nadu MP scurried past his dazed colleagues and promptly put an uttariya, bearing the colours of the Indian flag, around Clinton’s neck. The smiling President adjusted the shawl and thanked the legislator twice.

Vinod Khanna, who has had the experience of being mobbed by fans in the past, overtook a few MPs in his aisle to have some Clinton’s gleam rubbed on him. The MPs were falling all over the place.

The scramble that had begun as a disciplined paying of tribute was now beginning to get out of hand. Outside the Central Hall, Clinton’s security personnel were aghast. A few were squinting, trying to make sure that these were all MPs.

A bespectacled lady, later identified as Shyama Sinha from Bihar, moved in circles trying to get a view of Clinton from all angles. Her handshake with the President was also probably the longest. She told reporters: “I won’t wash my hands for three months.”

Clinton was far from disgusted. He was not even condescending. He appeared to be enjoying the general bonhomie at the end of decades of cold relations with India.

So the President’s hands continued to be grabbed by MPs. A somewhat bemused Vajpayee, treading slowly, fell behind. Sonia Gandhi quietly disappeared into a corner with Chelsea, possibly wondering why the parliamentarians had suddenly given up their lofty patriotic ideals and were paying obeisance to a foreigner.

It was the parliamentary affairs minister who intervened. Clinton had just stepped out of the Central Hall when the MPs converged on him. Mahajan led the way into the crowd, rudely elbowing them out. Trinamul Congress’ Sudip Bandyopadhyay and BJP’s P.C. Khanduri (a former army officer) had almost leapt from their respective corners to reach Clinton. “Leave him alone,” shouted Mahajan as he virtually handed over the besieged, but still smiling, President to his personal bodyguards.    


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