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March 6, 2000
Clinton may stop over in Pakistan
Amberish K Diwanji
The broad parameters of the Bill Clinton visit are slowly taking shape, even as the government gears up for the mother of all visits. And it is now almost certain that in the battle between Hyderabad and Bangalore to host the United States president, the former city clearly has an edge at present, which must surely make the Andhra Pradesh chief executive (officially, chief minister) N Chandrababu Naidu a happy man.
Another chief executive who'll be happy with the way things are going is Pakistan CEO General Pervez Musharraf. It is now almost certain that the United States president will travel to Pakistan for a stopover at Islamabad airport. While the final announcement will only be made later from Washington DC by the Clinton administration officials, Pakistani observers say that by now the die is cast, despite Indian efforts to get the US visiting party to avoid Pakistan.
The observers say that Clinton is likely to stop at Islamabad airport on his way back from India on March 25 for just a few hours where he will meet General Musharraf. Clinton will not leave the Islamabad airport premises, and his meeting with Musharraf will take place at the airport lounge. The US delegation is also likely to have lunch at the airport.
Clinton's visit to India coincides with the festival of Holi, a government holiday with even the press in north India closed. Holi is on March 20, and thus there will be no newspapers available on March 21. To avoid this media blackout, government sources say Clinton will now spend March 20 in Bangladesh.
However, the US president will not fly directly to Dhaka. He will fly in to New Delhi on March 19 late in the evening where the Indian government will officially receive him. However, no high level meetings are expected to take place at that late hour.
On March 20, Clinton will depart for Bangladesh, where he will spend the entire day, the sources added. He is expected to fly back later the same evening though Dhaka is trying hard to convince the US president to stay overnight in Bangladesh.
Thus, for all practical purposes, Clinton's visit to India really begins from March 21. The US president will spend two days in Delhi before moving to Bombay. In that two days, he will also visit Agra on March 21 to see the Taj Mahal, accompanied by his daughter Chelsea. The US president will only be able to see the Taj Mahal by moonlight two days after a full moon night, which is on March 19.
From Delhi, Clinton will leave for Bombay on March 23, the US president will fly down to Bombay, and, during in the country's commercial capital, he will also pay a visit to Hyderabad. Like Dhaka, Hyderabad too is trying to convince US officials to let Clinton stay overnight, but so far in vain.
And while it does seem that Bangalore has lost out, Hyderabad still has the niggling problem that its Begumpet airport cannot handle Air Force One (the US president's aircraft), which is Boeing 747. If this hurdle is not sorted out, the US president might just end up not being able to go Hyderabad. The options are that Clinton takes a smaller aircraft or that Begumpet works overtime to lengthen the airport runway (officials say the latter is more likely).
From Bombay, Air Force One will depart for Islamabad in the morning for the stopover visit.
Among all the preparations, it is security that is of the greatest concern, so much so that it is even dictating terms where the president will stay. Of the three options being looked - the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the US embassy, or the Maurya Sheraton hotel - the choice has narrowed down to the last two.
The US advance team, which has been in Delhi for the past two weeks, has virtually cleared Hotel Maurya Sheraton. However, government sources warn that with the US embassy -- Roosevelt House -- just a few blocks away from Maurya Sheraton, the US team will keep the both options till the last minute.
The advantage of Maurya Sheraton is that it is not in the heart of Delhi, located opposite the ridge (a thickly wooded area). Thus security management is much easier for the officials concerned. Moreover, Maurya Sheraton has had high-security people on their premises earlier. Among the people who stayed there were US First Lady Hillary Clinton and the world's richest man Bill Gates.
Strangely, for the all the paraphernalia surrounding the visit, it is also clear that little of substance will be addressed during the visit.
"This visit is mostly hype and hoopla, with only the media overexcited about it," said government sources. "No major talks or agreements will be made during this visit, which is almost in the nature of a goodwill travel tour by the US president."
With India categorically refusing to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or even to discuss the possibility of US mediation on the Kashmir dispute, there are no strategic issues at stake. The US administration had spoken about these two issues and was even hoping that India would sign the CTBT during Clinton's visit. But New Delhi has refused to bite.
Sources said that the government too is happy about the fact that no major discussion will take place. However, to make it look like a successful visit, some economic agreements are likely to be inked in the presence of the US president. It is believed that a mega power generation deal will be signed.
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