Savera R Someshwar


Everything seemed to be going smoothly. The crowd was polite and peaceful, the sadhus seated on the stage looked pleased. The live music provided by second generation Indians was amateur but enthusiastic.

Then the Indian press corps clashed with the New York Police Department. And unravelled the patchwork organisation that was holding together the gala function organised to felicitate Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

It all began when the television crews began setting up equipment. The media had been allotted a corner and only a few crews could get a good view of the stage. The others, after jostling for space and being promptly shunted back into the corralled-off press area, threatened to stage a walkout.

"You know," said an organiser, "that was bound to happen. No one wants to work here, everyone wants to be a leader."

What was primarily a Vishwa Hindu Parishad function turned into an umbrella event when the prime minister flatly refused to grace it. It was only when the Federation of Indian Associations, Overseas Friends of the BJP, American Association of Physicians of India and Indian Political Forum were roped in that Vajpayee was persuaded to change his mind.

While on clashes, it was not just the press that the NYPD had to face. Many of the sadhus insisted on accompanying their gurus to the special areas demarcated for VIPs. Of course, the cops would not let them. It took all the ingenuity of the VHP organisers to avoid trouble.

Will he? Won't he?

Anxiety was writ large on the faces of the organisers. Vajpayee should have been at the venue at 4 pm New York time. Minutes lengthened into an hour. There was still no sign of the chief guest. Another 45 minutes passed. By then, there were many in the audience who had given up.

"I don't think he's gonna be here."

"Do you think he's really ill?"

Even the announcement that the prime minister was on his way and that the music would continue till then did not still the whispers.

6.03 pm. Two motorcycle cops whizzed into South Beach. Everyone sat up. The prime minister had finally arrived. In a cavalcade that was 21 vehicles long, including the mandatory ambulance.

Special podiums had been erected to host the honoured guests. On the podium to the left were the 50-odd "spiritual leaders". To introduce the secular element, there was one representative each from the Zoroastrian, Islamic, Sikh and Christian faiths. The rest, of course, represented the Hindu religion.

Most of the sadhus wore soft leather shoes. Many had their own seat covers -- we even spotted a tiger skin (imitation, we hope) -- which they placed before seating themselves.

Vajpayee was in formidable form. He chose to sit as he addressed the audience, but had everyone eating out of his palm. Here are some samples:

"I have heard that Columbus left on a search for India and found the United States instead. But there is no danger of such a mistake happening anymore."

"We are more than ready to export food grains today, but cannot find any buyers. You see, we are expensive. We make sure our farmers get a good price for their crop."

"I have been asked why some of our goals have not been achieved. [This remark was in response to Swami Satyamitra, who wanted to know why the Ram temple had yet no been built.] We have not been idle. We have achieved many things despite being in a minority. Let the electorate of India give us a two-thirds mandate. We will then give you the India that you want."

"Those who chastised us after Pokhran don't even talk about it now."

"I was not invited to the Shanti Sammelan. I guess they did not believe any relationship could exist between religion and politics. But, believe me, there is a very deep relationship."

"I have not come here as the prime minister. I have come here as India's pratham sevak. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? I may no longer remain the prime minister. But no one can take away my right to be the nation's swayamsevak."

"I am grateful to you. There is no bell here to remind me that it is time for me to stop speaking."

The last was a direct reference to the Millennium Summit, where a red light used to flash the minute each leader crossed his allotted five minutes.

Vajpayee had begun his speech to a standing ovation.

Unfortunately, the microphone decided to die at that moment. The audience was promptly on its feet, with shouts of "Come on" and "Get the mike working."

The errant mike was promptly replaced and Vajpayee proceeded through the rest of the evening without a hitch.

The speeches were over. The vote of thanks had, thankfully, been given. Now it was time for a little pet pooja. The NYPD finally began to relax and even smile.

The cops also tried the Indian snacks being offered around by waiters. We found three officers hovering suspiciously around a plate.

"I tried that," said one, pointing to a kachori. "It was rather spicy."

Luckily, the bland aloo tikkis saved the day.

Talk about fusion! The second generation Americans of Indian origin were at it with a vengeance.

While the American national anthem -- Star Spangled Banner -- was fused with aalaps, our Jana Gana Mana had some rather peppy music in the background.

We don't know how the older generation took it, but the younger lot seemed to be having whale of a time!

Associate Editor Savera R Someshwar takes great pride in meeting tight deadlines.

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