Amberish K Diwanji

Friday, my colleague Savera R Someshwar had reported on Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's address to the joint session of the United States Congress.

In her articles, she specially mentioned the small number of law-makers present on the occasion. To quote, "That number, you would agree, is a pretty sad commentary on the importance White House places on the prime minister of the world's largest democracy."

Sadly, instead of accepting the fact and explaining why there were so few members, some officials accompanying Vajpayee insisted that a "good number" did attend the session. Many said the number was small is in itself no indication. After all, at the India Caucus lunch there must have been at least 40 law-makers, though many of them were the same faces seen in the Congress.

Said James McDermott, a strong voice in the India Caucus, "Those who mattered in terms of influencing policy on India were all present. Just numbers by themselves doesn't mean much."

An Indian American community member gave likely reasons. "Most Congress members are busy campaigning for elections just weeks away. And second, some committees and subcommittees were holding meetings at Capitol Hill and members were unable to attend the PM's speech, especially since the Congress is in session for just two weeks more," said Anil Vora, a member of the Indian-American Political Forum.

Another reason being cited is that Vajpayee's 20-minute speech was very short. "When the prime minister was walking out, some members of Congress were walking in! If he had continued, by the time it ended there would have well been many more members," said a person who requested anonymity.

This person recalled that when an important Chinese leader addressed the Congress, he spoke for about an hour and most of the Congress members actually entered when the speech was halfway through.

One thing is for sure. When the US visit is over, the prime minister's health will become a major issue. It is only politeness that makes the Indian pressmen keep quiet while the tour is on. During the PM's speech, his fumbling was loud, literally.

The PM's ill-health was easy for all to see while addressing the Congress. At the White House, there was the touching show of concern from President Bill Clinton, who went out to help Vajpayee reach the podium.

But once more, it was the PM's extremely brief speech, about one-third the length of the one by Clinton, that clearly told of a person unable to keep up. The prime minister's address to the UN was short, encore at the Congress, and ditto at the White House.

Short speeches are okay, but can the entire gamut of India-US relations or the future of the United Nations be constantly reduced to three paragraphs?

Why do Indian officials misinform the media?

Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the prime minister and national security advisor, informs the media that the joint press conference by Vajpayee and Clinton has been cancelled.

Reason? "Because Vice-President Al Gore wants to meet the PM after the lunch," he replies, without batting an eyelid.

Next morning, a White House official briefing the US media says the press conference was cancelled because the Indian PM wanted to rest after his morning session in the White House.

If the Indian media has to choose between the Indian and the US official's versions, the latter wins. One, why would Gore want to meet Vajpayee "after" lunch when he has already met him before lunch and then hosted him at lunch?

Also, we know that the PM is not well. So why can't the likes of Mishra be more open about it?

When Clinton visited India six months ago, many of those who witnessed the mela (that word describes it best) saw that wherever the US president went, he was followed by a mysterious guy, in dark suit and usually wearing dark glasses, carrying a bag. More precisely, The Bag!

The Bag, we learnt, contains the US nuclear codes in case someone tried to nuke America while the president is away. It follows the US president everywhere. It is never more than a few feet from the president's person.

Now, we have the Indian version of the same. For the past few days, the media team has noticed a person carrying a brown leather soft bag (the US bag is a black briefcase) and following the prime minister.

And this became most evident today when the US president received the prime minister on the White House lawns. When Vajpayee's car stopped in front of Clinton, first a personal security officer got down and went around to assist the prime minister. And then, a third person disembarked, carrying "The Bag".

So now at least we know that the nuclear codes of India, in true democratic fashion, are with the prime minister.

Should China turn democratic, India will suffer a major identity crisis.

For the past few days, we have been constantly hearing how India is the world's largest democracy, how its people vote (unlike in other non-democratic countries), and so on. And also that that is why India and the US are natural allies. In fact, the words "largest democracy" is practically coming out of our ears!

So if China turns democratic, then what happens to our exalted status as the world's largest democracy?

Maybe that is why India is trying to overtake China in the population race. (The UN estimates that by 2045 India would be the world's most populated country). So that if China becomes democratic about 50 years later, our population will be more and we will continue to remain the world's largest democracy

Of course, if China decides to embrace democracy the way it hugged the market economy in the next few years, then India will lose another title to China. Whoever remembers the guy who came in second?

Perhaps the Indian leaders should go easy on the "democratic alliance" stuff. India and the US are growing close for many reasons. Being democracies is not at the top of that list.

I owe our readers an apology. In an earlier copy, I had said the Empire State Building was the tallest building in New York and located downtown.

As readers have corrected me, it is the World Trade Towers that are the tallest buildings in New York (which means the Empire State Building comes third, or is there another one in between?), and also that the Empire State Building is located midtown, not downtown. I believe the errors have since been corrected.

Amberish K Diwanji believes neither in blacking out nor whitewashing Truth.

See our complete coverage of The Vajpayee Visit.

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