All spit and polish for president's visit

March 22, 2000|By Janet Heller

BILL CLINTON'S passage to India this week would befit a maharaja.

The Indian government has spared no expense to roll out the red carpet and give him a glimpse of an India few people see. During a recent visit to India, I found streets in New Delhi repaved, curbs freshly painted, trash removed and road dividers washed down by hand. Fresh plantings were added around the elegant Maurya Sheraton Hotel where the president and his entourage began their visit.

The elaborate preparations for the five-day visit to five Indian cities, the first since Jimmy Carter's l978 tour, have provoked a flood of comment in the local media. And, as if to underscore Mr. Clinton's observation that the Indian subcontinent is "the most dangerous place on earth," he is being protected against any real or imagined threat to his safety by a legion of U.S. and Indian security forces.

There also has been considerable speculation about the contingency plans of the U.S. Secret Service to evacuate the president were a crisis of any sort to arise. In fact, Indian noses have been out of joint because such plans were made by the Americans independent of the local security establishment -- and taken to show a lack of trust in India's ability to protect such an important guest.

The U.S. Embassy has been observing high-security restrictions in anticipation of the Clinton "yatra" (the Hindi word for journey) for some time. Since March 12, no demonstrations or processions have been allowed near the embassy area and visiting U.S. firemen are unable to drop by.

Among his many concerns, the beleaguered U.S. ambassador, former Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste, has had to visit the Ranthamhore National Park in the state of Rajasthan to make sure enough tigers would be on hand for the Clinton herd to view. He also has tried to placate local environmentalists, who worry that the noise generated by the sightseers' choppers landing at the four specially constructed helicopter pads will frighten the animals.

There was a delicious furor over some French tourists who 10 months ago made reservations to stay at the ultra-luxurious Oberois Raj Vilas hotel outside of the pink city of Jaipur. The well-heeled group had booked 40 rooms, but their dates overlapped those of the president, and the Secret Service officials insisted on taking over the entire hotel to ensure safety. At first, the Oberois group chairman refused to release the rooms of his French clients, which forced the U.S. Embassy to take up the dicey issue with the Indian Foreign Ministry. It, in turn, requested that the French government prevail upon the tour operator to postpone the visit. In the end, the needs of the Maharaja from Washington and his traveling companions were met. Perhaps the United States settled the matter by promising to pick up the tab for the disgruntled French tourists when they re-book. (That could get pricey: putting head to pillow there costs $600 a night minimum.) Obviously, Mr. Clinton will not be sleeping close to the breast of Mother India.

In reading the English language press in the days before the president's arrival, I was surprised by the irreverent tenor of some of the articles written about him. Advice was given in detail as to how to avoid the well-known ailment Delhi-belly. He was told to eschew state banquets that might include Social Justice Minister Maneka Gandhi because "before you can say `Monica who?' she'll have you converted to vegetarianism." One cartoon showed Mr. Clinton flirting with a pretty young thing near the Taj Mahal, the implication being that he is a far cry from the devoted Shah Jahan, who had the exquisite monument built to honor the memory of his wife.

Although the president was to be in Agra about 110 minutes, just long enough to see the Taj Mahal, city officials reportedly met 17 times to discuss logistics, and the police had six brainstorming sessions before the visit. A senior Indian protocol officer even ordered new tiles for the bathroom Mr. Clinton might use at the site. It boggles the mind to consider that security plans called for airspace over the building to be sealed, the area around the nearby Yamuna River to be off-limits to all but water buffalo and the Taj itself to be closed to tourists.

A prominent Indian lawyer in New Delhi, who was at one time with a Cleveland law firm, said over tea that the president will not be seeing anything that approaches the real India. "The trip is a frivolous one, not only for him but for Chelsea. He is a prisoner of tight security requirements and will be experiencing an India that has been sanitized for his benefit. The essence of my country is not to be found where he is going and in what he is doing."

Nevertheless, the importance of this presidential junket cannot be overestimated. Ambassador Celeste recently announced that a U.S. company will provide 80 percent of the cost of the Shrinagar hydroelectric project and other assistance efforts will be forthcoming. India wants the world to know that it is a country with which the West can do serious business.

Janet Heller is a Baltimore free-lance writer.

Pub Date: 3/22/00

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