Presidential jitters in Washington, optimism in Delhi
Washington, Feb. 24: US President George W. Bush’s penchant for malapropisms and for putting his foot in his mouth will keep Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and senior members of his cabinet on tenterhooks during the 60 hours or so that Bush will spend on Indian soil next week.
That nervousness is something the Indian leadership will share with the US President’s aides, if the last three days of preparations here for the Bush trip are any indication.
Bush nearly turned America’s long-standing Kashmir policy upside down on Wednesday when he spoke at the Asia Society about his upcoming trip to India and Pakistan.
The President said: “America supports a resolution in Kashmir that is acceptable to both sides.” And in saying so, he dropped a bombshell.
For more than 40 years, America’s policy on Kashmir has favoured a solution that stresses three elements: India, Pakistan and the wishes of the Kashmiri people. In one stroke, Bush jettisoned four decades of finely-crafted US diplomacy on Kashmir when he eliminated Kashmiris from the entire dispute and made it an issue solely between India and Pakistan.
As soon as he got off the Asia Society’s podium, state department and White House aides pulled Bush aside and told him to do quick damage control, according to sources in the Bush administration.
Their stakes were high. With that single statement, the entire presidential visit to India and Pakistan could have become mired in controversy.
Precisely one-and-a-half hours later, Bush used an interview in the White House to set the record straight.
“America supports a solution that is acceptable to all sides,” he hastily clarified.
“As you might recall, in my remarks, I said ‘to both sides’. I would like the record to be so that the world hears me say ‘all sides’. I fully understand that the deal has to be acceptable to the Indians, Paks, as well as the citizens of Kashmir.”
But in making the clarification, Bush further put his foot in his mouth. “Paks” or “Pakis”, like “Japs”, are derogatory terms, carefully avoided in public, though commonly used in private to reflect the true feelings of someone towards the Pakistanis or the Japanese.
And he offended the Indians by talking about the “citizens of Kashmir” without obviously realising that Kashmir is not an Independent country and that its people are Indian or Pakistani citizens depending on which side of the Line of Control they live on.
What followed during the White House interview was like the late night comedy shows that Americans are glued to every night.
Singh and Pervez Musharraf may read the transcript to prepare themselves for the bricks Bush might drop on their feet during conversations in New Delhi and Islamabad next week.
“Is the US more comfortable dealing with dictators and monarchs?” one journalist asked Bush.
THE PRESIDENT: Do what now? Do I feel comfortable doing what?
Q Dealing with dictators and monarchs?
THE PRESIDENT: Do I feel comfortable dealing with them?
Q No, the US.
THE PRESIDENT: The US feel comfortable with dealing with dictators?
Q And monarchs.
THE PRESIDENT: And monarchs? Well, I mean, I have got a great relationship with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain. (Laughter) She is a lovely lady and a great figure in a country that is an important ally. And, of course, that monarchy is very supportive of a free and open and democratic system.”
When Bush wanted to terminate the interview and sought the final question, one of the journalists tried to get the President’s view on cricket and Bollywood.
Q Between a cricket match and a Bollywood movie, what would a —
THE PRESIDENT: Cricket match and a —
Q You like watching?
THE PRESIDENT: What was the second?
Q It’s between a Bollywood movie and a cricket match.
THE PRESIDENT: I’m a cricket match person. (Laughter) I appreciate it. As I understand it, I may have a little chance to learn something about cricket. It’s a great pastime. (Laughter)
What took the cake, however, is this segment.
Q Mr President, what is your earliest memory of India?
WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: We have got to go to the next one.
Q What is your earliest me
mory of India and Indians?
THE PRESIDENT: My best memory?
THE PRESIDENT: At least memory?
WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: Earliest.
THE PRESIDENT: Earliest. (Laughter)
The exchange, which is typical of Bush’s conversations in private and public would be funny, not tragic, if the person at the centre of it all was not the most powerful man on Earth!?