The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Festival light on F-16 sale, Bush visit

Washington, Nov. 11: The White House was lit up yesterday for Diwali, but the nearly 100 Indian Americans invited for the event used the occasion to get the Bush administration to throw light, instead, on its South Asia policy in the President's second term.

It was not the kind of Diwali celebration the White House had bargained for.

Unlike last year when the Indian Treaty Room at the White House echoed to chants of Asato ma sadgamaya, Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya (Lead us from untruth to truth, lead us from darkness to light) and the function tamely ended with distribution of Indian sweets, this year Indian Americans threw anxious questions at the White House about its India policy.

It was left to Robert Blackwill, President George W. Bush's coordinator for strategic planning in the National Security Council, to pacify them with an assurance that no decision had been taken at the 'lowest or highest level' within the US government on supplying F-16 fighters to Pakistan's air force.

Blackwill was constrained to clarify the issue when Sampat Shivangi, vice-president of the influential Association of American Physicians of Indian Origin, raised the issue as soon as an Indian American White House staffer finished welcoming the invitees.

The staffer, R. Venkaiah, threw the ball at Neil Patel, a senior aide to Vice-President Dick Cheney, but Patel found the question too sensitive for his call.

There was all-round anxiety about the F-16s and then Blackwill stepped in to clarify the issue. He said General Pervez Musharraf was cooperating with the US in fighting terrorism, especially now, on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

But he denied rumours about the sale of F-16s, which have been swirling here ever since defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was coy about the issue with a Track-II delegation from India which met him recently.

As a familiar sop to the agitated Indian Americans assembled in the Executive Office Auditorium of the Eisenhower Building, a part of the White House complex, Blackwill told them to required applause that Bush would visit India next year.

As a sweetener, Blackwill added that the US was not opposed to India's permanent membership of the UN Security Council and assured the group that India had the potential to be a world power.

Blackwill, who told the group that it was his last day at the White House and the Diwali celebration was his last public event in the administration, however, used the occasion to urge India to import more US goods to offset the bilateral balance of trade now in India's favour.

Blackwill said he had begun his tenure in the Bush administration in India and was ending it at an Indian American function.

Blackwill and Shivangi together lit the lamp and typically Indian sweets and coins with images of Indian goddesses, Laxmi and Saraswati, were distributed.

Indian American Republicans campaigning among their community during the recent US elections had often highlighted Bush's decision last year to celebrate Diwali at the White House for the first time as evidence of his interest in and commitment to India.

Last year's celebration, attended by Karl Rove, the 'architect' of Bush's election win, was the result of a meeting between the President and six Indian Americans led by Shivangi in Jackson, Mississippi, on September 12 last year.

A one-page memorandum handed to Bush by the delegation pointed out, among other things, that while Judeo-Christian and ' lately ' Islamic festivals were celebrated in the White House, Hindu festivals were ignored.

Bush told Rove on the spot to correct this shortcoming and within a fortnight Shivangi was notified of the first ever Festival of Lights at the presidential abode last year.

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