The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Wanted, a taker for Najma on Capitol Hill

Washington, April 2: Members of the US Congress are at the receiving end of a variation of the ongoing search and capture tactics that America is employing in Iraqi towns: they are being hunted down by India!

New Delhi’s diplomats in Washington are on the prowl on Capitol Hill since the last two days seeking out any senator or member of the House of Representatives who is willing to meet Najma Heptullah, deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha.

Heptullah arrived on Monday, ignoring advice from the Indian embassy in Washington that it would not be the right time for her to visit the US capital.

Senators and members of the House of Representatives, who are her natural counterparts in the US, are busy with the war in Iraq and the Bush budget for the next financial year.

Today, for instance, both the Senate and the House are in session and in addition there are 13 Senate committees and sub-committees, meeting primarily to discuss the budget and the financial allocation for war proposed by President George W. Bush.

In the House too, there are 13 committees and sub-committees meeting throughout the day.

Apart from the heavy schedule of officials and political leaders here, countries other than those which are US’ partners in the war against Iraq are putting off visits to Washington.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, last week postponed his trip to the US which was planned long ago both because of the war schedule of American leaders and to distance Islamabad from the conflict in Iraq.

Last weekend, Canada’s Prime Minister John Chretien announced he was calling off a visit to the US during which an award was to have been conferred on him. Chretien said it would be inappropriate to visit the US while it was invading Iraq.

Today, China and the US by mutual agreement put off vice- President Dick Cheney’s trip to Beijing which was to take place later this month.

Cameroon’s President was in the White House, but that was at the insistence of Bush since the US is continuing to woo Cameroon in its capacity as a member of the Security Council.

Under those circumstances, the visit by Heptullah, who claims influence in leading Arab countries and was once the Prime Minister’s special envoy to Iraq, has raised eyebrows in South Asian circles here.

She was asked at a press conference yesterday whether her visit had a “hidden agenda” in view of the war with Iraq.

Heptullah denied any hidden agenda and said she was in Washington primarily to find a property for an India Centre here in her eight-month-old role as president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

Her assertion underlined that Heptullah’s US visit was no more than a junket at public expense because three finance teams made up of senior officials from Delhi have already visited Washington and gone into great detail regarding acquisition of property for the India Centre.

Besides, the basic framework of the Centre was completed when Naresh Chandra was ambassador to the US. He even raised money from Indian Americans through the Centre, registered as a tax exempt body here, for a Gandhi statue in America’s capital.

That being the case, Indian officials here and in South Block maintain that what was needed, if at all, was a visit by an official of the ICCR, possibly its director-general, who incidentally is familiar with the strings in Washington from an earlier posting at the Indian embassy.

Instead, Indian diplomats here have been forced to draw on the goodwill for India on Capitol Hill by pleading with US lawmakers to spare at least a few minutes for Heptullah.

Heptullah’s main programme today is to meet members of the India Caucus in the Congress, but at the time of writing, Indian embassy officials could not name even one lawmaker who had agreed to the meeting although with a new lobbying firm for India putting its best foot forward, they were sure that some meetings would be arranged by the end of the day.

In two days, she has only been able to meet Steve Hadley, the deputy National Security Adviser and address a non-descript group called the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Today, she will also visit the Brookings Institution.

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