| Vajpayee at the dinner in St. Petersburg. (AP/PTI)
New Delhi, June 4: Crosses — overhead and ground — rather than cross-border terror, dominated exchanges at the high table of world leaders at St. Petersburg last week.
Russian President Vladimir Putin put Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President George W. Bush next to each other at the gala dinner held to celebrate St Petersburg’s 300th birthday so that they could talk infiltration to their hearts’ content.
Guess what: Bush talked about cricket over glasses of water that the two had, according to Vajpayee’s confession!
Putin — of hot-blooded vodka-swilling Russian stock — engaged in an animated discussion on football with his neighbour at the table, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Berlusconi is the chief patron of AC Milan, the club that a couple of days earlier won the Champions League in an all-Italian final. Greek Prime Minister Constantinos Simitis was the other leader at Putin’s table and would feel more comfortable kicking a ball than carting one around a field.
Putin had already discussed south Asia and other issues of mutual interest in detail with the Indian Prime Minister the day before, during an exclusive bilateral meeting.
When the US President was assuring Vajpayee that he would talk to Pervez Musharraf to dissuade Pakistan from keeping cross-border terrorism among its foreign policy goals — as India alleges — Putin was possibly discussing with Berlusconi the goal-less two hours Milan played with Juventus.
The winner was settled in a penalty shootout.
The Italian Prime Minister was predictably in high spirits — though what he and Putin were drinking that night is not known — since Milan had become the champion club of Europe after a long gap.
Not to be outdone, Putin pointed out that the match, played at Old Trafford, became enthralling only after the Russian referee disallowed Andriy Shevchenko’s early strike against Juventus.
Berlusconi simply could not stop praising his Milan players and the way they basted their more favoured opponents.
Elated with his team’s success, Berlusconi assured all leaders at the table that they could join his club any time they wanted.
Bush perhaps thought he could chat Vajpayee up on cricket. “The Prime Minister and I are more interested in cricket,” Bush said, much to the surprise of those present. But Vajpayee was not willing to play ball. He smiled at Bush’s display of interest in the game, which is unfamiliar to most Americans.
Well, ball games are not the only things world leaders discuss when they get together. Putin appeared quite exercised about the rate at which world population was increasing. He said some surveys suggested that soon India would overtake China as the world’s most populous country.
“It must be a very difficult proposition to preside over such a country,” Bush reportedly said. Ever the India backer, Putin piped in: “But it must also be a problem to preside over a country with a very small population.”
Vajpayee said India was trying its best to deal with its ever-increasing population. He reminded the others that India was a multi-religious country where people had their own ways to deal with birth control, with each religion having its own views on the subject.
The Prime Minister said the government did not want to impose its views on them. Instead, he said, India was educating people on how a manageable population could benefit individual families as well as the country.