The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Big Apple too small for Big Two
Singh and Sonia

Washington, Aug. 7: Fourteen years after an August coup that ousted Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and set in motion a train of events that led to the demise of the Soviet Union, America is ironically facing a Kremlinesque dilemma in its dealings with India.

The dilemma is the result of New Delhi’s curious decision that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi will both visit New York at the same time next month on different missions.

A US official compared this to a difficult -- but almost impossible -- Cold War dilemma where Soviet party chief Leonid Brezhnev and his prime minister Alexei Kosygin would have landed up in the same American city at the same time.

The Bush administration’s protocol and security officials are already at their wits’ end over ensuring the safety of 184 heads of state or government, who have so far agreed to attend a special high-level plenary meeting of UN General Assembly, which will open in New York on September 13 and continue for four days.

The Prime Minister is attending this meeting, which will coincide with the 60th anniversary of the UN’s founding. He will meet President George W. Bush in New York on September 14, according to American officials.

Former US President Bill Clinton is holding his first “global initiative”, an unprecedented gathering of world leaders, in New York from September 15 to 17 and Sonia Gandhi has agreed to attend this meeting.

Several heads of state and government, including French president Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, will address the UN meeting and stay on till September 17 for the Clinton initiative.

They will also be joined by others, such as Israel’s vice-premier Shimon Peres, media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, to aid Clinton’s effort to find “solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges”.

Americans are good at matching protocol and sensitivities and will get around any difficulties that next month’s events may pose with regard to India, but the practical problems which are anticipated by the presence here of parallel leaders from New Delhi will not end there.

Indian officials in the US, for instance, will be at a loss over which leader to propitiate more: they know that the UPA chief is obviously the centre of political power, but the Prime Minister is the head of their government.

Add to this the culture of sycophancy in the Congress party and there is already speculation whether external affairs minister Natwar Singh will spend his time with the Prime Minister or with the Congress president.

The minister attracted severe criticism recently when he breached protocol and travelled with Sonia Gandhi during her visit to Moscow as a junior member of her delegation.

Building on the success of the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Washington, several US media organisations are already trying for interviews with Manmohan Singh in New York.

They may switch course and move towards Sonia Gandhi since she is the power behind the “throne” and divert the media momentum in the US that was recently created around the Prime Minister.

One proposal doing the rounds in New Delhi as a way out of this dilemma is said to have originated from the external affairs minister.

It will involve Manmohan Singh cutting short his visit to New York. If this proposal is accepted, the Prime Minister will arrive in New York on September 13 and will leave on September 15, the day Sonia Gandhi’s activities begin in the city.

Manmohan Singh was to have originally stayed in New York until September 17, but the UPA chairperson will, instead, stay for the entire Clinton initiative and return home on September 18, if the Natwar Singh formula finds favour with all concerned in New Delhi.

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