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Attention deficit in the mother of world democracy

Saisuresh Sivaswamy in New York | September 16, 2005 04:59 IST

The United Nations is a wonderful place, especially on a warm summer day.

Ask the assortment of people gathered outside lending their voice and strength to various protests. The Tibetans were there, protesting against the Chinese 'occupation'. The Iranians protesting against the loss of freedom (!) in their country.

As we trundled past the vocal camps, which had by, now started raising the decibel level on seeing the media gathering around, one cannot but marvel at the liberal society that is New York.

One cannot also help thinking that of all places on earth, there can be no other home to the United Nations but New York, the city that encompasses many worlds within itself.

For a first-timer, especially during the annual summit, the United Nations can be quite an overwhelming kind of place. The security phalanx � not at all unhelpful, let me add --  is visibly there, and one is forced to go through many levels of it to get to the final destination, which for us was to watch the Indian prime minister deliver his speech at the 60th Session of the UN General Assembly.

It is a large building, and once you enter you are pretty much left to your own devices. You can ask around, but there's few who can help you navigate your way to the final destination. As a card-carrying journalist you can always catch the action on extra large screens in the media center, but that is not what one plodded across many blocks for. Live action please, we told a security guard at the media centre.

Who, very helpfully, took it upon himself to lead us to our destination, up four levels. Finally, as we collected the blue ticket -- which looks suspiciously like the cards weighing machines in railway machines in India spit out -- that entitles us into the viewers gallery in the UNGA, he wished us a good audience and melted into the crowd.

The viewers' gallery offers a bird's eye view of the UNGA speeches by various world leaders. You can see the podium with the session's co-president and the two presiding officers, the world dignitary at the lectern, delivering what to him is the most important speech he makes each year.

Facing them are rows of countries, with their permanent ambassadors and other officials.

It is a cavernous hall, one that can easily accommodate many aircraft hangars.

The viewer's gallery has earphones, which come as a testimony to the financial crunch the world body has been facing. A few of them don't work, in the sense there is no sound coming from them, and the ones that do are almost inaudible. A tough twist of the knobs in the hand rest gives you the speech in the original language as well as in many translations, including English. You choose what is convenient for you.

As the speeches drone on, you realize with horror that there is scant attention being paid to them. In the mother of world democracy, there is a serious attention deficit!

As the world leaders say their piece, in their native language, aides walk around, distributing copies of the speech as it is delivered. Others are seen talking, but since your view is from high above and behind, you can only presume that it is not the speech that has riveted their attention. Sigh.

The president of China, Hu Jintao, is a powerful man. His country, it is said, could be the one to take on the current undisputed champion, America. But Jintao's speech meets with similar response as others. It is in Chinese, naturally, which I cannot follow, and the English translation coming into my ears is of such low sound quality that I soon lose interest.

The heads of other countries are announced one by one. Congo, Mongolia, San Marino, and finally South Africa's Thabo Mbeki.

Then you see a familiar figure in a blue turban walking towards the back, followed by aides, and you know the time you have been waiting for is nigh. There is a smattering of Indians in the viewers' gallery, courtesy curious members of the media and a handful of members from the diplomatic corps for whom presence at the event is de jure, one presumes.

Unlike his predecessors, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's [Images] speech is in English but there is nary a twitter as his name is announced and he ascends the podium. Is it proper form on these hallowed premises to applaud before the speech, you wonder, not knowing the decorum. A furtive look around shows no one putting their hands together, and you let yours lie on the armrest.

The time, you can't help noticing in the watch, is 12.10 pm. It's a 977-word speech, and Dr Singh runs through it in 10 minutes. And suddenly, the applause that greets his speech is the loudest among those one has heard in the hour one's been here.

Later I ask a diplomat if it was just my imagination playing patriotic tricks on me or was the applause for Dr Singh's speech really loud. The twinkle in his eye said it all.

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