Amberish K Diwanji

The Millennium Summit at the United Nations got off to a rousing start in New York.

Top leaders represented virtually every nation, whether it was small ones such as Bhutan or the Federated States of Micronesia (literally small islands) or gigantic ones such as the United States, Russia or China.

The gathering provides the leaders a wonderful chance to meet on the sidelines and renew their bilateral relations and deepen existing friendship. In fact, it is the chance to meet other leaders that has assumed greater importance rather than the speeches that are made at the Summit, the 55th session of the UN General Assembly, which are along expected lines.

After making the speeches, the top leaders depart to various conference rooms or to their hotels to meet their counterparts, leaving behind officials to report on what the other leaders say.

On the first day, most of the leaders of important nations were present in New York, including United States President Bill Clinton. He was the first speaker after the assembly chairmen and the secretary-general.

Sadly, one prominent leader missing in this galaxy of head honchos was none other than Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose knee trouble forced him to delay his arrival in New York by two days. It may just prove to be a case of two days too late.

A major fallout of the presence of such top leaders, each accompanied by a large delegation of officials, the media and others, is that finding hotel accommodation is nothing short of a nightmare.

It is probably worse for the Permanent Mission of India, which has to make arrangements for about 80 journalists, besides other officials, who are accompanying the prime minister on his visit to the UN and later to Washington DC to meet with Clinton.

On September 5, 2000, the senior officer who is responsible for ensuring that every Indian hack is provided accommodation, was a most harried man. He had just been told to book rooms for six more people, and this had become a mission impossible. Not a single hotel in and around the UN (located on Manhattan Island) had one room to spare, let alone three.

Finally, in sheer desperation, the officer called up the marketing officer of the Radisson Hotel, where the media accompanying the prime minister is being put up. The marketing officer, incidentally, is an Indian hailing from Calcutta.

The diplomat used all his skills and oozed charm in his native Bengali. The next morning he was informed that the extra rooms sought were being made available, and the diplomat nearly did cartwheels in sheer joy!

So what worked? Was it the Indian connection or Bengali? Or just luck? The diplomat was cynical about these factors.

"The reason is that by the afternoon of September 7, when the Indian team arrives, most of the other leaders would have left. And along with them would have gone the officials and media teams, which is why these rooms suddenly became empty," he said.

Visiting heads of states or governments imply a huge media presence to record their words. And a media presence in turn draws activists eager to publicise their cause. The New York police have not forgotten how the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle was held hostage by large groups of activists and are taking no chances.

The various roads leading up to the UN building are choc-a-bloc with policemen and policewomen. The police have blocked major roads leading to the UN and are on high alert to ensure that any demonstration does not degenerate into a free-for-all that would seriously impair the Summit.

The most active group, and which managed to hold a demonstration in the morning when the summit was kicked off, is the Falun Gong. Wearing bright yellow tops that loudly proclaimed their identity, its activists demanded that Beijing stop its crackdown on the group in China.

However, the strong police presence prevented the activists from staging a long protest, and after a few minutes, they were disbursed.

This is Associate Editor Amberish Diwanji's first visit to the States.

Click for the complete coverage of The Vajpayee Visit

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