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September 8, 2000

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The Vajpayee visit E-Mail this report to a friend

War is in nobody's interest: Vajpayee

Amberish K Diwanji in New York

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee began his official engagements in the United States of America with an address to the Asia Society in New York on Thursday, September 7. In his speech he flayed Pakistan, assured continued economic reforms, promised to work on signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and spoke about the deepening Indo-US friendship.

In a pointed reference to Pakistan, he said India had consistently tried to improve relations with its neighbours and that his visit to Lahore in February 1999 was part of that process, and to which the response of the Pakistani rulers was Kargil.

"In pursuit of our effort to build good South Asian relations, we have displayed a generosity of spirit that few countries can match. In the face of extreme provocation, we have shown extreme patience and restraint. We are a patient people and have persevered in the search for a peaceful settlement with Pakistan in the conviction that war is in nobody's interest," Vajpayee said.

"We have displayed patience and restraint in order to discharge our higher responsibilities towards the region," he added.

However, the prime minister, who spoke seated on his chair, pointed out that India was committed to preserving and protecting its national interest. "None should doubt that India has the means and the will to protect her territorial integrity, secular unity and communal harmony."

"We will continue to conduct ourselves in accordance with the great traditions bequeathed to us by our civilisational history in combating the terrorism and instability that is emanating from our neighbouring region," he stated.

He declared that India was committed to a composite dialogue with its neighbour. "But for any meaningful dialogue, that country must demonstrate its commitment to existing bilateral agreements and abjure cross-border terrorism. Unfortunately, the current leadership of Pakistan has time and again publicly repudiated both the Simla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration," he pointed out.

The prime minister, dressed smartly in a gray-coloured bandh gala, told his audience, which had a large number of American citizens, that terrorism poses a threat to all countries that subscribe to open society and democracy. He told them that much of the funding for terrorist activities came from the narcotics trade, whose mainstay is the US and European countries, and that some terrorist groups have sought sanctuary in the West.

"Let there be no doubt that terrorism will one day threaten the fabric of those societies that give them shelter. The US is already facing that problem," he stated, adding that India was in the forefront of the campaign for the early adoption of the Comprehensive Convention against Terrorism.

Vajpayee acknowledged US support on this front and hoped that the UN General Assembly would adopt it soon.

Turning to the issue of nuclear disarmament, the prime minister stated that India exercised its nuclear option when it feared that its right to keep that option was being curtailed.

The prime minister stated that the multi-polar world of the 21st century needs a plural security order that accommodates and acknowledges the growing strength and confidence of emerging economies and security players.

Insisting that India firmly believed that peace could only be acquired through nuclear disarmament, and not through deterrence, he criticised the nations with huge stockpiles for showing little inclination towards disarmament.

"Till such time that weapons of mass destruction are dismantled, we will retain a credible minimum deterrent. Our experience has taught us that to defend peace, we have to be strong," he declared.

He added that his government was trying to achieve a consensus on the CTBT and would also participate in negotiations on the Fissile Material Control Treaty at the Conference on Disarmament, Geneva.

In a hall filled with many captains of industry, both of American and of Indian origin, the prime minister reiterated that his government was committed to economic reforms and liberalisation. However, he cautioned his listeners, saying that when they complained about India moving too slowly, they forget that India was a diverse democracy and that the people had to be carried in the reform efforts.

"Efforts are being made in this direction and we are confident of success," he stated.

He pointed out to the audience that India had averaged a stable and consistent growth of six per cent over the last decade, a feat few economies could boast of.

Last, he turned to the India-US relationship, saying that history would mark President Bill Clinton's visit to India in March, and his return visit six months later, as the high water marks in the bilateral ties.

"That partnership is important for Asia. In the world of the 21st century, in which Asia will be central to global stability and prosperity, our relationship will play an important role," he concluded.

When the prime minister arrived at the dinner, he received a rousing reception. The around 400 plus guests, dressed in their best, rose to their feet and applauded for an entire minute. Clearly, the PM was a star.

Seated on the dais along with him were Victor Menezes, the Bombay-born chief executive of Citibank, and Maurice Greenberg, chairman of the American International Group, an insurance company that is planning to enter India once the insurance sector is opened.

Greenberg is also chairman of the Asia Society, one of New York's most prestigious societies that boasts on its rolls top businessmen, academics, political leaders, and others. The Asia Society hosts a dinner every year, and at which function a prominent leader from Asia is invited.

What makes Atal Bihari Vajpayee's presence significant is that unlike other years when only a few Asian leaders are present in New York simultaneously, this time around, many heads of state or government China, Japan, Pakistan, Singapore are in New York. But from them all, it was he who was chosen.

The prime minister, who will address the UN on Friday in Hindi, addressed the Asia Society in English. Unfortunately, having just come of a long flight only a few hours earlier, his jet lag was visible during his speech when he fumbled on a few occasions. At one point, he was forced to go over the sentence a second time.

But the audience were most willing to forgive such minor lapses. For them being invited was a privilege, and it did not come cheap. Dinner tickets were sold at $ 1,000 per person.

The PM's speech lasted 25 minutes. The audience were imbibing wine and spirits, but dinner was not served until Vajpayee finished his address.

Menezes took over to present the PM a memento and thank him for gracing the Asia Society dinner. The dinner was held at the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria, the hotel where the prime minister is staying in New York.

Vajpayee did not stay for dinner but left for his suite, while the guests soon got down to the task of enjoying their expensive meal.

rediff.com has assigned Associate Editors Amberish K Diwanji and Savera R Someshwar to cover Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to the United States. Don't forget to log into rediff.com for news of this historic visit as it happens!

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