How Bill Clinton charmed India and got charmed too
‘You don’t make peace with friends’, Bill Clinton declared while addressing the Indian Parliament in 2000. The historic words still echo in my mind whenever I reminisce the highly charged visit of the former US President to India.
In the March of the new millennium, something unthinkable happened. The President of USA – the most powerful man on Earth - swooped and conquered the heart of India with his ineffable charm. After almost 28 years, any President from the States had come calling. William Jefferson Clinton had come with wife Hillary, daughter Chelsea, mother-in-law and a huge entourage.
India received the Clintons in the true sense of ‘Athithidevo Bhava’ wherein he was accorded a grand welcome. Protocols were set aside for Bill Clinton. The then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh himself went to receive the President, when the protocol stated that a junior minister is supposed to welcome a head of state. So, just at the outset of the journey, the tone was clearly set by the government of India which left no stone unturned in a stellar show of amiable diplomacy. Bill Clinton too attached much importance to his trip what with the big delegation he brought along.
The Clintons, during their six day stay in India, visited Delhi, Jaipur, Agra & the new cyber capital of India, Hyderabad and left via Mumbai. On the first day however he also went to visit Bangladesh for a day, and returned by to Delhi by evening.
Bill Clinton’s stay in the country was as much official as it turned out to be personal. Chelsea was super-excited about trying her favourite tandoori chicken in India. She was so fond of tandoori that she made her parents also fall for it.
Initially there was some media disappointment as word spread that Clinton was not going to Jaipur, an event that could truly capture the US first family dipping in the hues of India. Thankfully, it turned out be a miscommunication. Clinton was not going to Joypura in Bangladesh and not Jaipur!
On the Indian side, everyone wanted to get their moment of fame with the US President. So when the guest list of PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s dinner for the Clintons was restricted to a mere 150, there was literally a scramble to get on it.
The ones who could not make it to the list in spite of being power honchos were quite miffed. Similar was the case of the Presidential banquet, where 400 guests are usually invited for a head of state dinner. But Clinton’s security had restricted the number to 100, making it possible for only a select few to be invited. These 100 people were carefully picked so that they could represent the entire nation.
Some of the eminent people who got the invitations were MF Hussain, the sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan, chess wizard Vishwanathan Anand, and the cricketing legend Sunil Gavaskar etc.
The historic trip not only showcased India’s hospitality but even we came to see the various shades of the man, Bill Clinton. According to reports, he brushed aside his aides’ views not to meet CM Katyal, father of Rupin Katyal, the only person to be killed on the ill-fated IC-814 hijacked plane, in his crammed up schedule. Clinton made time for the bereaved father, citing humanitarian reasons and met him to offer some consolation.
The media was constantly tracking the movements of the President and his party.
Televisions and newspapers were full of images of Bill Clinton’s charm and not so much of the accords he signed or the announcements he made. It was quite evident that his charisma was not only working wonders on the common man but also on our politicians and bureaucrats.
On the third day of his stay, his speech before the joint session of the Parliament left both the people and the leaders applauding with praise. On the one hand he spoke at length about Mahatma Gandhi’s sheer greatness and on the other he compared India’s Silicon Valley Bangalore to USA’s Seattle. On the one hand he quoted the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and at the same time spoke about Indian musical ragas. The parliamentarians were touched and almost everyone became a Clinton fan.
According to the TDP leader, K Yerran Naidu, the US President that day ‘rekindled in us the nationalistic spirit of being an Indian’. Then, there was a somewhat funny &, might I say, silly spectacle where the MP’s tugged at each other to shake hands with Bill Clinton. There was huge jostling for who would shake hands with him. Some of the MPs, they say, didn’t wash their hand for a few days!
At the ITC restaurant Bukhara in Delhi, they had a lavish meal of mixed meat, lentils, and oven baked bread. The seat they sat on and the meal they had has now acquired Bill Clinton’s name and is much sought after.
Next I remember his visit to the magnificent Taj Mahal in Agra, where he was accompanied by daughter Chelsea and mother-in-law Dorothy. He gave a speech on environmental issues from the Taj Khema. It was very interesting that he chose to speak on environment from the ramparts of the Taj, since it faces grave environmental dangers.
According to media reports, the US President expressed regret over the wall of the Taj getting wearied out due to pollution. He was filled with awe as he remarked, “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who have seen the Taj Mahal and love it and those who have not seen the Taj and love it.” Such was the impact of this visit that even Hillary remembers it fondly till today.
The highlight of this tour definitely was the American President’s visit to the Nayala village near Jaipur. It was in the rustic lanes and unassuming spirit of the villagers that the Clintons really came in touch with the real India.
The women folk who were hesitant to come out of their ‘ghoonghats’ two days prior to his visit, broke traditions to shake hands with him. Bill Clinton was touched by the majestic welcome he received in Nayala. He went around the village breaking lot of protocol and security cordons. He broke into dances on beats of huge drums with rose petals being showered from all over and shook hands with everyone for almost half a kilometer.
Inspite of the language barrier, he was able to communicate and speak out his heart and listen to the life stories of India’s villagers. He was surprised to see a woman sarpanch running the village, but the women of the village were even more surprised when they saw a female driving the limousine of the President!
After Jaipur, he swept Hyderabad off its feet and commended the then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu for the measures he undertook in putting the capital of the state on the map of the world. And via Mumbai, the President left the country with his entourage. Such was the bonding that he made here that even after he passed on the baton to George W Bush, Bill Clinton visited India numerous times on private and public visits along with either Hillary or Chelsea.
The outcome of the visit was immense, of course, as you will read in other columns on this website. It began a historic partnership between both the oldest and the biggest democracies that was to last for years to come. He did what the other visiting US Presidents could never do, make his presence felt in a positive manner in the hearts of Indians.
But he was not able to shake India’s firm stand on the nuclear issue (signing CTBT) or the Kashmir issue – the purported aims of his visit. Before Clinton came, however, the Indo-US ties were bedeviled by mistrust at some level. The visit helped change that for once and for all.
The Union Home Minister of the time, LK Advani, described the visit by Clinton as ‘a success of our diplomatic initiatives.’ The association started by Bill Clinton has continued over the years, successfully taken forth by Bush, and now with Barack Obama touching the Indian shores, one can expect he brings hopes of peace and development to cement this tie between both the nations. After all, his motto is ‘Yes, we can’ even though it might sound feeble now.
I hope he too gives us some fond memories.