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Bush leading a lean team to India

February 27, 2006 18:40 IST
President George W Bush will arrive in New Delhi March 1 at the head of a powerful but lean official delegation, sans any US lawmakers or influential Indian American Republicans.

This is in marked contrast to his predecessor President Bill Clinton, who on his visit to India in March 2000 brought along, in addition to his official delegation, several US lawmakers who were members of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, and facilitated a large number of Indian Americans to travel separately under the aegis of the White House.

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Bush, by way of contrast, will take with him only his key aides -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, White House spokesman Scott McClellan, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph, and if confirmed in time by the Senate, the new Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Richard Boucher.

Also expected to be part of the official delegation will be Hadley's aide Elisabeth Millard, director, South Asia at the National Security Council; Ashley Tellis, adviser to Burns; and a few other White House officials like Michelle Davis, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and global outreach and deputy assistant to the president; Corry Schiermeyer, director for global outreach in the NSC, and of course scores of Secret Service and medical personnel, and other security and White House personnel.

High profile Indian American Republicans, some of whom are enviably close to the Bush family, made a concerted bid to be included in the party, but despite their pleas to the White House and even intervention on their behalf by the likes of Congressman Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican and immediate past co-chair of the India Caucus and Senator John Cornyn, Texas Republican and founder and co-chair of the Friends of India Caucus in the US Senate, the White House opted to leave them out.

Whitewashing Bush

Congressman Wilson in a letter to Karl Rove, deputy chief of staff to the President and Bush's chief political adviser, wrote 'I have been in touch with the Indian American Republican Council and many of their members would sincerely appreciate the opportunity to attend receptions with the President during his upcoming trip to India.'

He informed Rove that 'They have indicated their willingness to travel to India at their own expense in order to be there during the President's historic visit. Please let me know if this is possible, as many of these individuals have been strong supporters of the President for many years.'

The White House made clear to Wilson that it was the policy of the President not to take along any lawmakers or non-official members as part of his delegation, and that they would have to contact the government of India for invitations to attend any receptions or banquets, including the one hosted by President Abdul Kalam.

Consequently, Wilson wrote to Indian Ambassador to the US Ronen Sen, noting that 'I contacted the White House regarding top Indian American leaders joining President George W Bush during his visit to India. After discussing this matter, it is my understanding the government of India may be able to extend invitations to a few Indian American leaders to take part in some of the events being held in honor of the President in New Delhi and Hyderabad.'

The George Bush interview!

He requested Sen to get the government of India to extend such invitations, and noted that 'a number of Indian American leaders, such as the board members of the Indian American Republican Council, have been tireless supporters of stronger US-India relations. These longtime leaders have told me that they are willing to travel to India at their expense, in order to be present with President Bush.'

Sen however threw the ball back squarely in the White House court, informing Wilson and the IARC that the protocol was that for events such as President Kalam's banquet, the US will be accorded 20 invitations and the White House is free to invite whomsoever they wish, but that it was the prerogative of the White House and not the government of India whether to invite some of these Indian American Republican leaders.

Sen told India Abroad the same practice is followed in Washington, and noted that at the White House banquet hosted by President Bush for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, "very senior members of the (Indian) delegation dropped out – we had to exclude senior members of the delegation to include Ratan Tata and one or two others. We have a limit, so what we do with that, who we call, is up to us.

"So in the same way, I told the people who called that I can't interfere in the American choice. So if the President decides he wants to exclude someone — a senior member from his team — to accommodate any one of you guys —it's up to them," Sen said.

IARC chairman Dr Raghavendra Vijayanagar told India Abroad "We are kind of disappointed because we kept telling the President at every fund-raiser we organized for him to visit India and we were waiting for this opportunity for a very, very long time. But evidently, this President, no matter wherever he goes around the world, he doesn't take civilians (non-officials) with him. That's the White House policy. It's not just to India or Pakistan, but no matter where he goes, he doesn't take anybody. We have checked that and that is very true.

"So it that's the White House policy, what can we do, it has to be respected."

Vijayanagar disclosed that some very senior Republican lawmakers had also been interested in accompanying the President "but the White House said no."

He said he had been informed that "the President is going there as a US President – not a Republican or Democratic President — and so it's not a partisan issue, and so there is no question of taking any Indian American Republicans or Republican Congressmen."

Vijayanagar pointed out that it was not for want of trying. "Everybody called the White House and Zach (Dr Zachariah, one of the leading fund-raisers for the Republican party and a close personal friend of the Bush family) called Karl Rove and also talked to (Florida Governor and the President's younger brother) Jeb (Bush), but he said that's the White House protocol and there's nothing he can do about it."

Zachariah confirmed that he had spoken to Rove and to the President's chief of staff Andy Card, and they had told him "The President is not taking anybody."

He said that both Rove and Card had told him that if the President was taking any Indian American "it will be you, but he doesn't want to take anybody because he has a different style" from that of Clinton. "That's exactly what Andy Card said that 'We don't want to do what Clinton used to do.'"

IARC vice chair Sudhakar Shenoy, who similarly expressed disappointment, told India Abroad "I had asked the White House to at least take one or two of the top Indian American business leaders like Rajat Gupta, Vinod Khosla or Pramod Haque, because it would add so much value to the President's delegation."

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But, he said, the White House had unambiguously told him that it had no intention of taking any one of them because they did not want to change policy and establish a precedent.

Interestingly Bush, who never forgets to acknowledge the contributions of the Indian American community, did not remember to mention them in his major speech to members of Asia Society about his trip to South Asia.

He made amends in the roundtable with Indian journalists later in the day when he said, 'Let me make one other point, if you don't mind, that I should have made in my speech today, and that is that there are a lot of Indian Americans who made a tremendous contribution to our country as well.

'And as the high-tech boom helped transform our society, a lot of the brain power behind that boom have been Indian Americans, as well as Indians educated here in America. And so the American people, as well, have begun to get kind of a different perspective on the great contributions that India can not only make to our own country but can make to the world.'

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC