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Garden chat for Advani, lunch for Musharraf

London, June 16:L.K. Advani is being treated by the British very much as a “Prime Minister-in-waiting”, even though in his main meeting with Indian opinion formers in London last night, the deputy Prime Minister sounded more like a BJP leader on the hustings.

“He’s a very significant player in India,” said a British official. “HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) wants to cultivate the relationship.”

Advani had a 50-minute talk (extended from a 30-minute slot) today with Tony Blair, which a spokesman for the British Prime Minister described as a “good meeting”.

In lovely sunshine, the two men pulled up chairs in the garden of 10, Downing Street, and had a cosy chat, after which Blair went to the door and saw off Advani. From all accounts and especially that of Ronen Sen, the Indian high commissioner, the gestures, the body language and “personal chemistry” impressed the visitors.

“It was a wide-ranging review of the international situation,” the British spokesman added. “They discussed India and Pakistan and the post-conflict situation in Iraq.”

Tomorrow, Blair will have his ear bent by General Pervez Musharraf, who will be given a pat on the shoulders for taking some steps to curb cross-border terrorism but he will be urged to do more. Blair will be giving the Pakistani President lunch as well.

Advani, who discussed terrorism over lunch today with David Blunkett, the home secretary, and was due to meet the “Overseas Friends of the BJP” later tonight, has a luncheon scheduled tomorrow with John Prescott, the British deputy Prime Minister.

He also has a meeting fixed with Jack Straw, the foreign secretary.

In between, Advani will give a news conference at India House, which Atal Bihari Vajpayee always refuses to do when he comes to London — he prefers reciting Hindi poetry to answering difficult questions from British journalists in English.

Blair did not apparently press India to send a peacekeeping force to Iraq, Sen told journalists after the Blair-Advani talks. Nor was there any direct mention of the Hawk deal that Britain wants to clinch with India.

Advani told Blair that there had been “no appreciable change” in cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. Blair is said to have agreed that the terrorist “infrastructure” in Pakistan needs to be dismantled.

The British Prime Minister said he was impressed by Vajpayee’s latest peace overture to Pakistan.

During his visit to Britain, Musharraf will not see the Queen. The British say this is because the Queen is “unavailable” but the Indians insist that the head of the Commonwealth cannot meet the leader of a country whose membership is currently dismantled.

Musharraf will have plenty of opportunity to put across his side of the story which is that Pakistan has already done a lot to curb cross-border terrorism and what violence there is in Kashmir is home grown. He is to be the guest at an official dinner tomorrow hosted by Lord Falconer, the new Lord Chancellor who is presiding over the extinction of this ancient office.

At some point, he is expected to meet the Pakistani cricketers touring England and attend a concert, Rhythms of the Indus, at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday.

Among those who will call on Musharraf will be Jack Straw, the new international development secretary Baroness Amos, and Ian Duncan Smith, the Tory leader. Musharraf is not being treated as a head of state, but neither are the British rubbing his nose in the dirt.

London wants to keep its lines open to both Islamabad and Delhi. “Pakistan is a key ally in the campaign against terrorism and a valued member of the UN Security Council,” said a foreign office spokesman.

Last night, several hundred Indians, mostly men and mostly dressed in sedate dark suits, stood for over an hour at the massive Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster to listen to a meandering speech given in Hindi by Advani.

Advani’s rambling speech was in the nature of a pep talk, but he did say that Vajpayee would continue to be Prime Minister for many more years to come, that Pakistani cross-border terrorism had not stopped and that sporting links with Pakistan could not be resumed while this situation continued.

He spoke of the need for “good governance” and promised this would be delivered by the BJP. He seemed unaware that when Indian ministers travel abroad, there is a convention that they speak only on behalf of the country and not their party.

Advani got a big cheer when he pledged that the Bill allowing for dual Indian citizenship would be law by the end of the year. Somewhat incongruously, a few Indians did start up, “For he’s a jolly good fellow”, but some were more concerned that “he did not say India is a secular country”.

A dissenting note was struck by a group of Asian women outside, who handed out leaflets, bearing the message: “L.K. Advani must go. Gujarat Genocide — Never Again! No US bases in India! No Indian troops in Iraq!”

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