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30 minutes with Bush, 8 with Rice

Washington, June 10: It was a “drop-in” which reflected the state of Indo-US relations. Five minutes after deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani began his meeting with US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush strode in.

Bush stayed with Advani for the next 30 minutes. After the President left, Advani and Rice continued their meeting for a mere three minutes.

It was typical of the wry humour Bush has become famous for that when he left, he told Advani and Rice that he hoped his intervention did not disturb the meeting.

That was the biggest understatement during Advani’s US visit so far.

Attention in the US and India on Advani’s talks here has so far focused on America’s efforts to get India to send troops to Iraq. Because America is losing more men and women in Iraq now than when the war was in full steam.

On an average, one American is dying in Iraq every day from enemy gunfire since Bush signalled an end to the war against Iraq’s Baathists.

The Americans are using persuasion with the Indian leadership to start with. If persuasion fails, there will be threats, howsoever subtle.

So far, Advani has proved a hard nut for Bush and his defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld to crack. That became clear yesterday afternoon when the deputy Prime Minister told heads of several US think tanks over lunch that “we have our differences” over Iraq. That was the second biggest understatement of his visit to the US.

Advani has not said “no” to the request for troops — either to Bush or Rumsfeld. Why should he' There is nothing to be gained by being negative. But a lot to be preserved by delaying a decision and being evasive.

Bush proved to be a match for Advani at playing this game of evasion when he said the Pentagon was ready to send a team to New Delhi as early as Monday to allay India’s fears and provide clarifications why its troops were being sought.

The bells may toll for a decision much faster than India anticipates unless Indian diplomacy is ready for one of its biggest challenges in the short run.

For Advani’s own responsibility as home minister, the most important meeting of all was with US attorney-general John Ashcroft, who has single-mindedly pursued terrorists in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Ashcroft was pleased to hear from Advani that in the last four years, agencies in his part of North Block had crushed 183 active terrorist cells which were getting ready for jihad in different parts of India. For Ashcroft, Advani immediately became a man of like mind and the attorney-general promptly accepted an invitation to visit India soon.

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