WASHINGTON: “People of India deeply love you,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told United States President George W. Bush here on Thursday evening.
Sitting within a handshake distance from the American President at the Oval Office, Dr. Singh uttered those words, which produced a smile of satisfaction on Mr. Bush’s face but left the Indian media puzzled.
Normally not given to loquaciousness, Dr. Singh found himself in an expressive mood and easily showered liberal praise on his host.
“In the last four and half years that I have been Prime Minister, I have been the recipient of your generosity, your affection, your friendship. It means a lot to me and to the people of India.” As Mr. Bush sat beaming in the glare of television cameras, he heard the visitor saying, “When the history is written, I think it will be recorded that President George W. Bush played a historic role in bringing our two democracies closer to each other.”
A grateful Prime Minister acknowledged Mr. Bush’s part in ending India’s nuclear winter: “For 34 years, India has suffered from a nuclear apartheid. We have not been able to trade in nuclear material, nuclear reactions, and nuclear raw materials. And when this restrictive regime ends, I think a great deal of credit will go to President Bush. And, for this I am very grateful to you, Mr. President.”
Dr. Singh was clearly mindful of the fact that Mr. Bush’s stay at the White House was coming to a close. Turning to Mr. Bush, Dr. Singh summoned up all the characteristic sincerity he could, and said: “So, Mr. President, this may be my last visit to you during your presidency, and let me say ‘Thank you very much’. The people of India deeply love you.”
Later, when the Foreign Secretary was asked what was the factual basis to the Prime Minister’s statement of Indian affection, an unfazed Shiv Shankar Menon said: “I think, if you look at the public opinion polls, the ratings for President Bush are higher in India than in any other country. That is the factual basis.”
The agreeable evening continued over a “working dinner” Mr. Bush hosted to Dr. Singh. Mr. Bush had invited his senior colleagues — Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Ambassador David Mulford, National Security Adviser Hadley — for what was described as “a small and very relaxed” affair.
Much was made of the fact that Mr. Bush spent nearly three hours with the Indian visitors on a day when his mind and attention were focussed on the American fiscal crisis. In fact, the interaction was delayed by about 20 minutes as Mr. Bush was holed up talking economy with the two presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama.
As the Indian officials saw it, “the quality of conversation” was very satisfactory. “It was very easy flow of ideas,” a fact that attested to the meeting of minds in the last few years. “I have not seen a conversation of this quality at this level. It is very rare that you see this,” gushed Mr. Menon.