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September 16, 2000
Clinton charms Indians again
Savera R Someshwar at the White House
It was all very exciting. To actually be standing on the South Lawn, in front of the White House, waiting to watch the president of the world’s most powerful nation welcome the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy.
Obviously, there were others who felt the same thrill of anticipation. Crowded around the rope barriers surrounding the actual welcoming area were around 500 people -- school students, ordinary US citizens and Indian- Americans. There were even some soldiers from the US armed forces.
To the left, precisely placed on the emerald green grass, was the US Armed Forces military band. In the distance, behind the large fountain ringed with red flowers, were three cannons, waiting to perform the 19-gun salute.
Marching in to the tune played by the military band were soldiers from the army, navy and the air force -- each holding, in their hands, a big flag of either India or the United States. Within seconds, they had lined themselves around the circular walkway facing the White House - the Tricolour to the Tri-colour, the Stars and Stripes to the Stars and Stripes.
Next, it was the turn of the guard of honour -- once again composed of soldiers from the three branches of the armed forces. They marched into position, facing the White House. It was an impressive sight -- what with the crisp uniforms, polished shoes, buttons and rifles glinting in the sun, the six chiefs with the ceremonial swords.
Somewhere in the horizon was the Ronald Reagan International Airport; the aeroplanes flying overhead a reminder of the fact that Washington DC is one of the busiest air spaces in the world.
The Indian delegation accompanying the prime minister arrived in a cavalcade at 9:15 am. And 21-person strong moved to the front row, where they stood to await the prime minister. Some of the familiar faces included that of the External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman Dr Najma Heptullah (clad in magenta silk), Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister Brajesh Mishra, India’s Ambassador to the United States Naresh Chandra and Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh.
They were greeted by Secretary Of State Madeleine Albright, Chief of General Staff H Shelton and the protocol officer of the White House. Dr Albright moved to the head of the row, where she exchanged long pleasantries with her Indian counterpart.
Meanwhile, the sound of sirens in the distance heralded Atal Bihari Vajpayee's arrival. It was also the signal for the White House pipe and drum band, who moved to the first floor.
At 10.48 am, the 42 flags of the two nations -- held by members of the armed forces were raised. A minute later, the president of the United States walked out of the White House entrance facing the South Lawn.
If Clinton made a good impression on the people of India when he visited the country in March, he enhanced that impression with his solicitous behaviour towards the prime minister. Clinton took a few steps forward to welcome Vajpayee, who slowly stepped out of his black limousine.
Through the rest of the ceremony, Clinton was considerate -- holding the prime minister’s elbow as he led him towards the dais for the guard of honour, pulling out the podium stand for Vajpayee to make his speech, slowing down his pace to suit the prime minister’s weary steps.
The US administration, obviously aware of the prime minister’s inability to stand for long, had provided chairs for the two leaders. While Vajpayee stood through the two national anthems, the inspection of the ceremonial guard of honour was dispensed with, keeping in mind Vajpayee’s knee problem.
Instead, while Clinton stood for the ceremonial salute -- that included a parade by the Red Coats Colonial band -- Vajpayee remained seated.
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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