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Cherie charts charity mission to India
- Calcutta boost for 'warm person'

The British Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Blair, will visit India from November 26-29 in connection with a charity of which she is president, it was confirmed on Sunday.

Since she is both admired and disliked for being a 'strong woman', her views on India are likely to be passed on to Tony Blair. The one thing she is not is a 'Blair babe', the nickname given to the bevy of Labour women MPs who dress well for the TV cameras but do as they are told by the party heavies.

Cherie Blair's trip amounts to a significant public relations coup for the London-based garments businessman, Raj Loomba, 61, who is thought to be in line for a peerage or a knighthood at the very least.

Other Indian businessmen in London are keen to discover exactly how he has been able to persuade Blair to hobnob with him. 'She needed no persuasion,' insisted Loomba.

He said Blair will inspect the work done by the Shreemati Pushpawati Loomba Memorial Trust, which he set up in memory of his mother.

'She was widowed at the age of 27 and died in London in 1992 at the age of 75,' her son said. 'She inherited money from my father who was a wealthy businessman in Punjab but, although she did not go to school, she educated seven children ' she sent my two sisters to college and me to America.'

Loomba said the work of the charity, which now looks after 1,100 children in 10 states in India, was close to Blair's heart. 'Our criterion is that the children should be fatherless and their mothers earn less than Rs 1,500 a month, that is less than a dollar a day.'

Blair, who attended a Diwali party thrown by Loomba in London recently, had been a patron of the trust and recently became its president, said Loomba, whose close friends and political supporters in India include L.M. Singhvi, the former Indian high commissioner in London.

Loomba was hopeful that Blair, who accompanied her husband to India and Pakistan last year, would be able to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other senior politicians in India. There will be a banquet given by the Loomba Trust at the Ashoka Hotel on November 27 and a dinner hosted by the British high commissioner at his residence the following night.

Speaking from Delhi, where he is making last-minute arrangements to welcome his guest, Loomba said he was anxious to ensure there were no last-minute hitches. 'After all, she is the Prime Minister's wife,' he said.

Blair will fly to India by Virgin Atlantic, accompanied by the airline's chairman, Richard Branson.

Although Blair is the Prime Minister's wife, she is also a practising barrister, who works under her maiden name, Cherie Booth, and is seen as a personality in her own right and a woman with a mind of her own.

It has been reported that when she flew to Washington for the Prime Minister's first meeting with the presidential couple after his win in 2000, Cherie Blair was in no mood to curry favour. A book, Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader, by Philip Stephens, states: 'Cherie Blair still believed that Bush had stolen the White House from Gore.'

She asked more than once during the journey why they had to be so nice to 'these people'.

In London, she has been very supportive of the work of a Calcutta woman, Pinky Lilani, who gives annual awards to Asian Women of Achievement. She is a patron of the organisation and normally turns up at its functions in a shiny white sari.

Lilani said Blair 'pays more than lip service to the causes she supports. She is a warm, spontaneous, feeling person, which is why people sometimes take advantage of her. She gives herself willingly to the causes she supports.'

Lilani added: 'For her 50th birthday party, she invited the charities she backs and asked each one to bring a number of people. I took 20. Recently, we invited all the 120 women who have been shortlisted over the past five years for Asian Women of Achievement awards to a party. Cherie came ' she did not need to ' and stayed for an hour.'

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