| Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with President George W. Bush at the dinner table in Petrodvoretz Palace on Saturday. (AP)
St. Petersburg, June 1: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee finally got to chat with US President George W. Bush last night at a dinner where he was seated next to him.
This was no accident. In a demonstration of his friendship with India, Russian President Vladimir Putin created the opportunity by making sure that Vajpayee was at the high table at the banquet he hosted for the 40-odd world leaders at the Petrodvoretz Palace on Saturday.
According to an official source, Bush made laudatory references to Vajpayee’s latest peace initiative with Pakistan. The Indian Prime Minister is understood to have told him that the peace process with Pakistan was unlikely to succeed unless cross-border terrorism came to an end.
Bush apparently agreed with Vajpayee. The official source claimed Bush told the Indian Prime Minister that he would be talking on the subject to Pervez Musharraf when the Pakistan President visits America later this month.
The official said that the subject of Pakistan was not discussed for more than five to seven minutes and, after that, there was a lot of chit chat at the table. Besides Vajpayee and Bush, others at Putin’s table included Russian First Lady Lyudmila Putina, Greek Prime Minister Constantinos Simitis and his wife and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his wife. While Greece currently holds the presidency of the European Union, Italy is the incoming chair.
Reacting to a question about what would be the litmus test of Pakistan’s intentions to pursue a peaceful settlement with India, the official said: “We would have to be convinced that Pakistan has taken a strategic decision to stop cross-border terrorism.” India had not yet come to such a determination, he said.
New Delhi’s assessment was that there was no clampdown on the militant organisations operating from Pakistan.
“If large-scale infiltration attempts continue to be made, that would indicate that there is no clampdown. In the month of May, the infiltration attempts have been fairly sizeable. About 18 to 20 militants have been killed in such attempts,” he said.
But the process of normalisation of ties was proceeding apace — technical talks for restoration of the Delhi-Lahore bus service were expected in the next couple of days, the official said. “The next step would be to restore civil aviation links.”
The resizing of the missions of the two countries to their pre-December 13, 2001 strength, however, was likely to take some time, the official suggested.
Although his meeting with Bush was only over dinner, Vajpayee has set a record of sorts by meeting all the P5 (the permanent five members of the UN Security Council) leaders within 24 hours in St. Petersburg. Except for Bush, with Presidents Putin, Jacques Chirac and Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Tony Blair, there was a detailed exchange of views.
Besides the unanimous approval of Vajpayee’s peace initiative, the two messages that India has received in these meetings are: one, that there is a sizeable opinion that the Iraq situation is bogged down and political processes need to be activated to get out of it; and two, that there is unlikely to be any military action against Iran because of deep division on the issue within the US as well as within its allies.
Overall, the Indian Prime Minister should have reason to be pleased with himself at a productive visit. Putin honoured Vajpayee in more ways than one: by inviting him to the tercentenary celebrations of St. Petersburg, by holding a bilateral meeting with Vajpayee even if it was well past midnight (the only other such meeting was with Bush), and by making sure that the Indian Prime Minister gets to talk to the US President.