Washington, Jan. 21: The meeting between President George W. Bush and external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha was a powwow between two politicians facing the heat of re-election in a few months.
Bush surprised secretary of state Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House chief of staff Andrew Card when he departed from his brief and suddenly asked Sinha to explain India’s electoral process.
As Sinha explained the mammoth exercise, the President may have been thinking of Florida, of how polling officials were unable to conduct free and fair elections in that state of mere 10 million registered voters and how that black spot in American democracy actually enabled him to be in the White House today.
Or Bush may have heard of Bihar — more precisely Jharkhand — from where Sinha is elected to Parliament. Or about Laloo Prasad Yadav. Neither side would hazard a guess about what was on the President’s mind.
One thing was clear. India now has a very special place in the White House. The Indian delegation travelling with Sinha was not expecting a meeting with Bush.
The best they hoped for was a drop-in by the President during Sinha’s meeting with Rice. But even that was uncertain because Bush was delivering the State of the Union address on Capitol Hill later last night, a politically seminal annual national event, made more important this year because of the coming presidential elections.
Yesterday was also the third anniversary of his entry into the White House. But the Indians were pleasantly surprised when they received word on Monday, a public holiday here because of Martin Luther King’s birthday, that Bush would have a separate meeting with Sinha in the Oval Office.
It was to have been a mere courtesy call, but after pleasantries, as Powell indicated that the meeting was all but over, Bush ordered coffee.
Coffee came and was drunk and as the conversation flowed between Sinha and the President, Powell reminded Bush that it was time for his next engagement. The President ignored the reminder and asked Sinha to explain the electoral process in India.
The meeting was unlike any other between Bush and an Indian leader. Atal Bihari Vajpayee is a man of few words: so Bush did most of the talking.
Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and national security adviser Brajesh Mishra choose their words with care. They also let Bush do most of the talking.
With Jaswant Singh, who was Sinha’s predecessor, Bush spoke about spring and the roses in the White House garden in April.
Yesterday, Bush and Sinha were both garrulous, their meeting stretching by 10 minutes into the President’s next engagement. So much so the White House spokesman mistakenly assumed that the meeting had ended, as scheduled, after 15 minutes. Bush reserved the highest praise in his lexicon for Vajpayee. He repeatedly told Sinha that Vajpayee is “a good man”.
Bush usually has three levels of praise for people: “a good man”, “a man of peace” and someone who is “doing a fine job”, the last usually reserved for his aides. The President has already said Vajpayee is “a man of peace” for his efforts to make peace with Pakistan.
Sinha said at a news conference at the Indian embassy here later that his meeting with Bush had convinced him that there was political will in Washington “to develop relations to their maximum strategic depth”.