Virendra Kapoor

Time we told you a secret.

Just two days before Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee left for the United States, there was a move to cancel the tour.

The reason being -- yes, that's right -- the aggravating condition of the PM's knees.

Vajpayee wasn't sure whether he would be able to meet the demands of a strenuous tour. A prolonged discussion followed, wherein his aides went all out to persuade him. He eventually agreed in view of the enormous work that had gone into preparing for the tour.

Of course, the major factor that helped the decision was President Bill Clinton's keenness to play host to Vajpayee.

Thankfully, Vajpayee's knees behaved when they were most needed -- that is, on the resumption of his State visit to the US after the United Nations Millennium Summit in New York.

One can sum up the PM's 13-day sojourn thus: it started out on a bad note, gained some sense and direction midway, and in the last lap in Washington acquired a momentum of its own.

The vintage Vajpayee and an effusively charming Clinton teamed up to rewrite the Indo-US relations in, as the cliché' goes, golden ink.

Correct Americans, sloppy Indians

Pomp and ceremony is an inseparable part any State visit. Every nation has its own customs and traditions that it unfailingly observes on such occasions.

The most visual part of the Washington visit is the elegant -- though very brief -- ceremony at the White House when Clinton welcomes the State guest. Traditionally, the US enjoins upon the Americans present there to observe certain customs.

An advisory note circulated well before the ceremony prescribed that 'during the national anthem of the Republic of India, Americans not in uniform stand at attention.'

And during the national anthem of the US, '...Americans not in uniform stand at attention and place their right hands over their hearts, and hats worn by gentlemen are removed and held over their hearts.'

While the Americans were proper and correct in observing the customs and dress code, the 25 members of the Indian delegation were sloppy and uncaring. They defied the dress code with impunity: some wore grey suits, others jacket-trouser combinations, while still others had eye-catching neckties!

The unwritten rule is to wear a dark western suit, if not the Indian bandgalla.

Incidentally, Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson Najma Heptulla, who for unknown reason was part of the delegation, needs to hire someone to correct her gaudy dress sense. The saree she wore to the ceremony stuck out like a sore thumb amidst a sea of sombre suits.

Borrowed plumes

The dinner hosted by Clinton to honour Vajpayee at the White House saw members of the media party accompanying the prime minister undertaking great pains -- and greater expense -- to observe the dress code.

Since the invitation prescribed the traditional black tie, the media managers, of whom there certainly was no dearth, tersely told the fortunate few who had received the invites to wear a tuxedo. Or at least the official Indian dress of a bandgalla, if not a sherwani.

A few journalists hired tuxedos for the evening. Cost: $ 100 per piece. Others borrowed the bandgallas of the unfortunate who didn't get invited.

The Delhi bureau chief of a Calcutta daily borrowed the bandgalla of the editor of a saffron weekly. Finding it too tight, he chose to wear nothing underneath and practically stuck to his table throughout the two-hour-long extravaganza.

But the prize went to the owner-editor of a Hindi daily, who went out and bought himself a brand new outfit complete with shiny new shoes, pleated satin shirt, a black cummerbund and the mandatory black bow-tie. The new acquisition set him back $ 1,000 -- in Indian currency, about Rs 45,000!

All for the pleasure of an evening with the Clintons and their 698 guests!

The story continues...

Like we said, journalists went to great lengths to be properly dressed. But not so the officials and media managers of the Indian delegation, who came in normal lounge suits and ties!

A journo accosted H K Dua, Vajpayee's media adviser. Came Dua's answer:

"Well, I had no intention of wearing a tuxedo although I had invested three dollars in a black bow-tie. But since the dress code was changed (at the specific request of Indians), we did not even have to wear that. Instead we wore our regular workday suits."

Soon after the banquet, the PM and his party had to leave for India. The rest rooms at the Andrews airbase presented a curious sight, with journalists hurriedly taking off borrowed tuxedos and bandgallas and slipping back into casuals.

Before you ask what happened to the rented stuff, there was a junior official designated by the Indian mission in Washington waiting to collect and return those!

Capital Buzz