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PM begins first official US visit

By Aziz Haniffa at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland
Last updated on: July 18, 2005 12:13 IST
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Exactly at 2.30 pm on a hot and humid Sunday afternoon, the Boeing 747 Air India One named Khajuraho came into into view in the southern sky over Andrews Air Force Base. Two minutes later it touched down on the main runway and, after taxiing for about 15 minutes, came to a halt.

A few minutes later the cabin door was thrown open and US Ambassador to India David Mulford and Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen went up to it to receive Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gusharan Kaur.

Exactly at 3 pm, the man of the hour, Dr Singh, emerged from the aircraft along with his wife and walked down the gangway. He walked over the red carpet laid out for him and was greeted with bouquets of flowers from the Indian ambassador's wife, Kalpana Sen. More than a hundred Indian-Americans community leaders and activists from the Washington metropolitan area, and the families and children of embassy officials, cheered, waving small Indian and US flags.

After shaking hands with the others lined up for him, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Don Camp, Deputy Chief of Mission at the embassy Raminder Singh Jassal, the prime minister was escorted down to the end of the red carpet by the Bush administration's Chief of Protocol Don Ensenart. He stood to attention before an honor guard of the US armed forces, and flanked by an Indian and US flag. The Air Force Band struck up the Indian national anthem first and then played the American one.

Dr Singh, in what many of the members of the representative community gathering, including many Sikhs in colorful turbans and some leaders of Indian American Muslim groups – waving to him behind the security gate – described as an extremely magnanimous gesture, did not simply wave back and get into the bulletproof limousine waiting for him at the end of the red carpet. Instead, he walked down to the security gate, and shook hands with those who had braved a humid and muggy afternoon to welcome him and thanked them for coming. They kept shouting 'Jai Hind, Jai Hind.'

Five minutes later, Singh, who was wearing a light blue turban, and his wife, wearing a blue salwar kameez and a holding a scarf with the tri-color embroidered on it, walked back to the waiting limousine. With sirens blaring and the Secret Service leading a convoy of Chevy Suburban SUVs with tinted windows, they began the 40-minute drive to Blair House, located opposite the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. There they will be ensconced for the next three days as the guests of President George W Bush.

The prime minister, who is on this first official visit to the United States, will meet with President Bush on July 18 after being welcomed on the South Lawn with a 21-gun salute and marching bands. He will also be accorded a state dinner at the White House East Room.

The next day, he will address a Joint Session of Congress, be felicitated by Congressional leaders of both the House and Senate, lunch with members of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, and, in the evening, meet with nearly 1,000 Indian Americans from across the country at a reception hosted by Ambassador Ronen Sen at the Marriot Wardman Park Hotel in downtown Washington.

On July 20, after breakfast with the editorial board of The Washington Post, Dr Singh will deliver remarks at a luncheon in his honor at the National Press Club. In the afternoon, he is likely to meet the accompanying Indian media and Washington-based correspondents, before departing for home via Geneva.

Before leaving for the US, the prime minister said in New Delhi that he attaches the "highest importance" to the growing strategic partnership between the US and India. "In my meetings with President George W Bush, I look forward to a comprehensive review of our bilateral relations. The US is our largest trading partner," he pointed out.

He said that his visit to the United States "is an important element of our effort to establish friendly and productive relations abroad so as to optimize the benefits for India's development and for our security and foreign policy interests."

The prime minister's visit, which is expected to cement the completion of Phase II of the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership that could lead to the possible transfer of civilian nuclear reactors that could alleviate India's acute energy shortage as India's economy grows exponentially, is also expected to include a strong economic component, with the possibility of increased cooperation in trade and investment.

Singh said, "We hope to strengthen our relations in the field of science and technology and hope to enhance the content of our interactions in the field of space and civilian nuclear energy cooperation."

Every nuance of the prime minister's visit will also be monitored very carefully by the leftist and communist coalition partners of the Congress. Thee parties have alleged that by signing a defense co-operation agreement with the Washington, India has sold out to the US.

Dr Singh, angrily denied the charge during a stopover in Frankfurt, en route to Washington. He argued that he would safeguard national interests "till the end of my life."

Asserting that even such a suggestion was malicious, Singh said, "Can you imagine that any prime minister will consciously or unconsciously sell India cheap. Nobody can sell India. India is not on sale. Nobody has to teach us lessons on patriotism."

In an exclusive interview with, at Andrews Air Force Base just before the arrival of the prime minister and his delegation, US Ambassador Mulford acknowledged, "It is indeed a historic day. There is already a transformation in US-India relations, "and it's going to be a very important meeting" between Dr Singh and President Bush.

Mulford conceded, "You are right. The economic component is indeed going to be integral and it's a very important past of this visit. We will see that tomorrow both with the meeting with the President and other," he said, evidently referring to the institutionalization of the CEO's Forum in the White House on the margins of the summit between the two leaders.

Asked for a heads-up on what the summit could envisage, the ambassador said, "My view is that what you are going to see out of this meeting is a demonstration of the breadth of the US-India relationship which is so multi-faceted, "such a broad-based relationship."

Mulford predicted that President Bush and the prime minister would "capture that and present it and dramatize it. It's going to be one of the chief benefits of this meeting," he said.

On speculation in India in the run-up to the visit that President Bush would back India's bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council and rumors that Phase II of the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership would be completed, leading to a transfer of US civilian nuclear reactors to India, Mulford agreed with Ambassador Sen's contention that such visits are not simply about major agreements but a tangible manifestation of an ongoing process, a process which is taking off exponentially where US-India relations is concerned.

"We've got the meeting tomorrow, so you'll just have to wait and see how those come out," Mulford said. "But the breadth of the relationship, the various dimensions of the relationship, will be very clearly presented," he reiterated.

"Of course," he added, "I can't undertake on behalf of the President to say what that is exactly before he does it. You'll just have to patiently wait another day."

But he couldn't stop re-emphasizing that "it's going to be a very, very important meeting, a historic meeting, a historic day in our relations."

Sen, who has been totally focused on the prime minister's visit to the US, and President Bush's expected visit to India early next year, told, "People [in India] have still not realized the full impact of the significance of this visit and the meeting with President Bush which is going to bring about a tremendous transformation in our relations," he said.

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Aziz Haniffa at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland