The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Away, Atal at home with Sonia

New York, Sept. 24: Two days after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s address to Indians here, which won plaudits from some Muslim leaders as a “secular speech”, the Prime Minister last night sprang a surprise by offering what was clearly an olive branch to Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi.

Speaking at a reception hosted by India’s ambassador to the US, Lalit Mansingh, Vajpayee emotionally recalled the events in New Delhi on December 13, 2001. Even as bullets were flying in the Parliament compound and people were getting shot, he received a phone call, the Prime Minister said.

On the line was Sonia, who asked where he was.

Vajpayee said he was at home getting ready to leave for Parliament when reports came in of the terrorist attack.

The Prime Minister, in turn, asked the Opposition leader where she was. He was equally relieved that she, too, was safe and at home. “This is the beauty of India’s democracy,” Vajpayee said.

To the clear surprise of even some of his aides, it was not the only reference to Sonia in Vajpayee’s extempore speech.

The Prime Minister extolled her for meeting Ariel Sharon during the Israeli Prime Minister’s recent visit to New Delhi, although many of her supporters and the Third Front were campaigning for a boycott of the visit.

Whatever the differences over policy, once the invitation was extended to Sharon, he became a guest of India. Honouring the traditions of hospitality, he should, therefore, have been welcomed by one and all.

Talking about consensual foreign policy, Vajpayee regretted that among those who openly opposed Sharon’s visit were some former Prime Ministers.

Vajpayee said he thanked Sonia for meeting Sharon and thereby fulfilling her responsibility as leader of the Opposition.

The Prime Minister’s olive branch to the leader of Opposition is his second in weeks. It came precisely a week after she rejected an earlier call by Vajpayee that “our tunes should match”.

Sonia had rebuffed the call by insisting that “our tunes can never match with those who are attempting to destroy the country’s secular fabric by spreading hatred and endangering national unity and security”.

In an unusually reflective mood last night, Vajpayee recalled his first visit to the US 46 years ago as a junior MP as part of an all-party delegation to commemorate Gandhiji’s birthday.

At the commemorative function, defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon, who was on the dais, spotted the young Vajpayee in a back row among the audience and requested him to step forward.

“I moved forward and ever since, I have been moving forward,” he quipped as last night’s audience went into peals of laughter.

Taking a lighter view of the political scene in India, he said the question is often asked of Vajpayee about the number of parties that make up his coalition. “I have not counted,” he said. “In any case, the number keeps rising and falling.”

Again to the amusement of his audience, Vajpayee made a reference to the number of former Prime Ministers in India and remarked that he may soon be joining their ranks. But he hoped the present coalition will retain power.

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