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Riot a blot on govt: Advani

London, Aug. 22: After seeking to prove to the world that his role model Sardar Patel was not anti-Muslim, deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani today made the sharpest public comment yet on the violence in Gujarat.

“What had happened in Gujarat was a matter of distress and anguish and was a blot on my government. We feel really outraged and shocked at what had happened there,” he said at a news conference here, addressing the international media.

At India House last night, Advani made a clever speech when he unveiled Sardar Patel’s bust. He used references from Jai Prakash Narayan and Rafik Zakaria to press home his point that whatever some people might have thought back in 1947, Sardar Patel was certainly not anti-Muslim.

The significance of this comment was not lost. C.B. Patel, the editor and publisher of Gujarat Samachar, a Gujarati weekly in Britain, said: “Advani was saying, ‘Look at me, I, too, am not anti-Muslim’.”

Read with the comments he made today, that indeed seemed to be the message he was trying to put across on his trip to London. This did not, however, mean abandoning chief minister Narendra Modi, who received another certificate for handling the riots efficiently.

Still, there was a distinct change of tone when he said the riots were “indefensible” and “I am sorry it had happened”. In the past, he has sought to justify the riots as a reaction to the carnage at Godhra.

Advani also floated the idea of a confederation in the subcontinent, saying that such a grouping could emerge if India and Pakistan could resolve differences. “If Europe can forget its past rivalries, why can’t we,” he said. Bangladesh can be the third member of such a confederation, in his scheme of things.

On relations with Pakistan, he repeated India’s stand that talks would resume once infiltration — which, he admitted, had dropped — stopped completely.

Advani discussed bilateral issues such as countering terrorism with David Blunkett and Jack Straw, the British home and foreign secretaries.

However, the most important task he has undertaken during his two-day visit to Britain has been to unveil the bust of Sardar Patel at India House.

Although Advani has had a meeting with John Prescott, the British deputy Prime Minister usually ridiculed in Britain as a “two Jags” man because he once used two cars to drive a short distance, his counterpart’s position in India could not be more different.

No one knows or cares what Advani drives. In the last couple of days, the British have been studying 71-year-old Advani with renewed interest as the man most likely to take over from Vajpayee.

A senior British source said: “There has been speculation that Vajpayee will step down as Prime Minister at the next election in 2004.”

Advani has discussed a wide range of issues with British ministers, the most crucial being Kashmir and counter-terrorism. The intelligence agencies of India and Britain have been working closely together since September last year. It is understood, according to an authoritative source, that India has passed on to Scotland Yard “the names of 14 businesses in Britain” believed to be involved in terrorism.

Advani and Straw covered everything from education to trade and intelligence in their talks today, after Advani had lunch with Blunkett. Advani would have met Tony Blair but the British Prime Minister is on holiday with his wife, Cherie, who is recovering from a miscarriage.

While Blair has to worry about looking after a young family, his Indian counterparts are more in the grandfather or even great-grandfather league. A foreign office spokesman said: “He and Straw have met many times before when Jack was home secretary but this is Advani’s first visit to Britain as deputy Prime Minister.”

Advani is also using his visit to strengthen links with Britain’s large Indian community, especially those deemed to be useful to the BJP. He has said dual nationality is on the cards, but not for every country.

Tonight, Advani was attending a reception given by the Overseas Friends of the BJP. Last night, 500 guests turned up for a party hosted by Ronen Sen, the high commissioner.

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