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March 23, 2000
Narayanan's tough speech upsets government
George Iype in New Delhi
President Bill Clinton's visit has had at least one adverse side effect. It has brought into the open differences of opinion on foreign policy between President K R Narayanan and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Officials at the prime minister's office and the external affairs ministry have reacted sharply to what they call Narayanan's "unwanted and out-of-place" rebuke to Clinton during the banquet he hosted in honour of the American president on Tuesday night.
The officials have collected clippings from the foreign media, some of which said all is not well with the so-called new Indo-American relationship after Narayanan publicly chided Clinton for proclaiming South Asia the "most dangerous place in the world."
'But by the end of the day, the tensions inherent in forging an Indian-American friendship surfaced when India's President K R Narayanan rebuked Clinton in a toast,' a New York Times report said.
Scolding Clinton for his 'alarmist' description of South Asia, Narayanan had said during the banquet: 'It has been suggested that the Indian subcontinent is the most dangerous place in the world today and Kashmir is a nuclear flashpoint. But these alarmist descriptions will only encourage those who want to break the peace and indulge in terrorism and violence.'
Rashtrapati Bhavan officials claimed that the President had acted "within his own limits" and his banquet speech was "not meant to upset the Vajpayee government". But neither Vajpayee nor his foreign ministry mandarins, who have been meticulously preparing and planning for the Clinton visit, are happy with Narayanan's diplomatic speech.
The government is baffled why Narayanan, instead of sticking to the theme of friendship, peace and economic relations, used the occasion to rebuke the American visitor.
"It was an unwanted and harsh speech. The prime minister's office and the ministry of external affairs were not aware that Narayanan would make a hard-hitting speech during a banquet," said a PMO official.
He said it was unlikely that the prime minister would take the matter up with the President. "But we feel it was a failure of the President's office that it did not get Narayanan's speech cleared by the PMO and the MEA," the official said.
He added that since banquets are generally events at which major issues are not discussed, or are touched upon only lightly, neither the American nor Indian sides had a clue that Narayanan would make such a tough speech, especially after Clinton and Vajpayee had signed the 'Vision Statement'.
In his speech, the President also spoke about the importance of the Non-Aligned Movement, an area in which the Vajpayee government has shown scant interest.
Sources said the Clinton delegation informally took up the matter with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh in an attempt to understand why Narayanan spoke so bluntly.
But a Rashtrapati Bhavan official said there was "nothing alarmist" in Narayanan's speech as was being made out by the government. "There was also no need for the President's banquet speech to be vetted by the government. Only his address to Parliament is cleared by the government," he added.
This is not the first time the President has crossed swords with his prime minister. Differences of opinion have surfaced between Narayanan and Vajpayee on a number of issues in the past, including the government's recent decision to set up a commission to review the Constitution.
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