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PM sets aside day to be seen & heard in US

Washington, July 13: For the first time in more than a decade, an Indian Prime Minister will be both seen and heard widely in the US when Manmohan Singh arrives here on Sunday on a three-day visit.

In a departure befitting India’s growing profile on the world stage, Singh will make himself available to no-holds barred grilling by the international media for one whole hour at the National Press Club next Wednesday.

The last time an Indian Prime Minister agreed to be at a two-hour National Press Club luncheon was in 1985 when Rajiv Gandhi visited Washington. Before that Indira Gandhi was at the club in 1982.

Wednesday’s lunch, which is open only to club members and their guests, has been sold out for weeks.

V.P. Singh, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Chandra Shekhar and H.D. Deve Gowda have all been virtual untouchables for face-to-face interaction with the international media because they were neither telegenic nor source for good copy.

I.K. Gujral put his foot into his mouth when he spoke to the world press and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s media handlers often went to great lengths to insulate him from long pauses that made him look ill at ease during interviews.

In fact, when Vajpayee visited the US in September 2000, the joint press conference with President Bill Clinton was cancelled.

But Manmohan Singh has decided to chart a different course with a vengeance. He has set apart the entire last day of his stay here for the media.

At the Indian embassy here, at the Prime Minister’s office and at the external affairs ministry’s spokesperson’s office in New Delhi, requests have been coming in for interviews with Singh.

In the recent past, it has been a refrain in India that the country’s Prime Ministers go to and come from America without creating so much as a ripple in the US or international media. Many Indians have found difficult to comprehend this lack of media interest in their leaders: especially since the domestic media always proclaims every prime ministerial trip abroad as a great success.

It has also been galling for Indians to see that compared to the lack of interest in their Prime Ministers, General Zia-ul-Haq, Benazir Bhutto and General Pervez Musharraf have all got prime spots in the US media because of Islamabad’s alliance with Washington.

There was considerable interest in Vajpayee after the 1998 nuclear tests, but the BJP Prime Minister often preferred the format of written questions and answers for his interviews, which robbed the exercise of all colour.

Singh’s engagements in Washington will begin with a joint media appearance with President George W. Bush in the East Room of the White House on Monday after his formal welcome.

As of now, Singh will start Wednesday with a breakfast meeting with the editorial board of The Washington Post. In a departure from usual practice, the newspaper has invited not only its staff writers, but also its regular columnists for the session at Blair House, the presidential guesthouse adjacent to the White House.

From that meeting, Singh will go to the National Press Club, after which he will be interviewed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Several other interviews are still in the works, including requests from Fox News and the highly regarded News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS.

Charlie Rose, a talk show host who introduced Singh to the US media last September in New York with an interview, is also seeking to repeat his effort. It is that interview which set in motion the unprecedented string of requests here to have the Indian Prime Minister on the screen and in print next week.

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