| Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair in France. (AFP)
Lausanne (Switzerland), June 2: “How many of you know that President George Bush does not even touch alcohol'” a playful Atal Bihari Vajpayee asked journalists accompanying him. The tribe of journalists which is reputed to have alcohol cruising through its veins (albeit mixed with some blood) kept quiet.
Vajpayee was telling them about his dinner with Bush at the Russian President’s banquet on Saturday celebrating the tercentenary of St. Petersburg.
“Each time when we got up to raise a toast, I found that Bush had plain water in his hands. When a toast was raised to India, I asked him whether he did not drink. He told me that he had given up alcohol 16 years ago. So what do you drink, I asked him. ‘Water,’ he replied,” Vajpayee recounted. That is a long time indeed, Vajpayee said.
“You have told us what George Bush drank but what about you. What did you drink, Sir'” asked an impetuous journalist with a twinkle in his eye. “Is it necessary to tell you that'” Vajpayee guffawed and then added: “Ordinary folk drink only water.”
Vajpayee recalled that the discussion at the dinner table, where he sat along with Putin and his wife, Bush, Greek Prime Minister Constantinos Simitis and his wife and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his wife, turned to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).
“Bush asked me how many cases of SARS we had in India. I said we had none. How is that possible, he asked, when even Singapore has so many cases,” Vajpayee recalled. “This was the result of our good management, I told him.”
Vajpayee said this trip had given him an opportunity “to see and experience” the tensions that have developed between the US and its European allies.
The tension between the US and Germany apparently was palpable at the banquet — French President Jacques Chirac had already left for Paris earlier in the day.
“After dinner, President Putin got up to thank the musicians who had been playing for us during the meal. Initially, President Bush also got up along with him to go and thank the musicians. Then suddenly, he saw Chancellor Schroeder on another table also getting up to do the same. Bush immediately sat down and later went separately to thank them,” Vajpayee chuckled.
“There isn’t time to tell you all these interesting stories,” the Prime Minister said. There was chorus from the media, “Please do. We have all the time.” Vajpayee laughed and said: “You may have but I don’t.”
Asked to clarify his comments about retirement, Vajpayee pretended he could not hear the question despite it having been repeated thrice. With a broad smile on his face, he said: “Kuch samajh mein nahin aa raha (I can’t understand what you are saying).”
Did he agree with President Bush that there was rampant corruption in the developing countries and public funds needed to be audited' Vajpayee said: “We have audits in India – in fact, hum to audits se he pareshaan hain (we are harassed by the audits).”
The Prime Minister said: “I heard the word ‘corruption’ repeated so often in the G8 dialogue yesterday that for a moment I thought I was in Indian Parliament!”
A reporter asked him: “Sir, while you have been travelling, the rupee has gained against the dollar. What do you have to say about the rupee appreciating'” The Prime Minister quipped: “To make the rupee bounce further, I will keep travelling.”
“After this successful trip, you should not celebrate by only drinking water,” some one suggested. “Paani he sab kuch hai (water is everything),” Vajpayee said and ended his press conference at the conclusion of his three-nation tour.