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September 15, 2000
Vajpayee scores a hit on Capitol Hill
Savera Someshwar on Capitol Hill
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's address to the joint session of the United States Congress on Thursday, was an unqualified success. That, at least, was how it seemed if one listened to the applause that punctuated almost every paragraph of his speech.
Earlier, events in the day, however, indicated that this was not the best moment for the Indian prime minister to pay a visit to the United States. Particularly since the US is in the midst of preparing for the national election, due in six weeks time.
Most of its elected representatives are, at this moment, fanned across the country, busy with their electoral campaigns. Not many of them made it back to Capitol Hill for the prime minister's speech.
When Speaker Dennis Hastert called the House to order at seven minutes to 10, it was nearly empty. While the back rows were filled with pagers (Pagers are students who intern at Congress during the summer and winter vacations. They wear a blue jacket and blue-and-red striped tie and run errands between various offices on Capitol Hill) - almost 70 of them -- most of the other tan-coloured seats were empty. Signs reserving some of the seats for US Senators and the prime minister's escort committee, stared back at the gallery for guests that surrounds the House.
It was only a couple of minutes before Vajpayee's arrival that the seats were filled. There were a few senators and Congressmen - but it represented a small number of the 435-member, 100-Senator strong House. Instead, most of the audience were Capitol Hill staff. Some of the Congressmen spotted on the floor of the House were Frank Pallone, Sherrod Brown, Richard Gephardt, Gary Ackerman and John Lewis.
The seats to the left of the House had been reserved for the Indian delegation that included - among others - External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh, India's Ambassador to the US Naresh Chandra, National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra and Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman Najma Heptullah.
Also spotted in the House was Venkatachalapathi Samuldra from the Shiva Vishnu Hindu Temple in Parma, Ohio. Samuldra entered the record books as the first-ever Hindu priest to perform the House invocation. Historically, the House has hosted members of various Christian denominations and Jewish sects, but has never invited a representative of Hinduism.
Samuldra, who earlier met Congressman Sherrod Brown (Democrat-Ohio), was dressed in a silk kurta and a maroon and gold bordered dhoti. He wore a blue shawl, bordered with gold on his shoulder and the traditional namah on his forehead.
He began with a namaste, before beginning the invocation in heavily-accented English. All invocations in the US House have to be in English.
Prime Minister Vajpayee - for this occasion, he had opted for a blue-grey bandh gala -- was escorted into the House at 10.05 am to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. He was received by the speaker and the 99-year-old pro-tem speaker, Storm Thurmond. The Republican senator from South Carolina, incidentally, had contested the presidential election in 1948, the year the US elected Harry S Truman as its 33rd president.
Vajpayee, who returned the applause before beginning his 20-minute-long speech, chose to sit down and address the House. After his speech, the prime minister met the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and International Relations Committee before moving on to lunch with the Indian Caucus.
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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