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PM's pal and `ambassador'

By Harish Khare

New York Sept. 22. "It was in 1985 or 1986 that Vajpayeejee had come to the United States. The BJP had just been given a drubbing by the voters. The party was down in the dumps. I had taken him to meet legislators in Louisiana and I introduced him to the Speaker of Louisiana State Assembly as the `future Prime Minister of India'. Vajpayee did not like it. And, when he became Prime Minister (for 13 days) in 1996, I reminded him of this incident. And we both laughed."

Meet ambassador extraordinary, Bhishma K. Agnihotri.

The Prime Minister's pal was giving "face-time" to the Indian mediapersons after a satisfying evening at the Jacob Javits Center here. Mr. Agnihotri was the compere of the show. He controlled the access to the mike and reduced the Foreign Minister, Yashwant Sinha, and the official and the accredited ambassador, Lalit Mansingh, to mere spectators.

The "ambassador" also admitted that he was no longer bothered by the "snides and the sniggers" in the Indian media about his unconventional enterprise to become an accredited "ambassador". He was satisfied that he had been given "accreditation" by the United Nations, even though the United States State Department would not play ball. So what? All that he cared for was his friendship with "Ataljee". Never mind the barely-concealed hostility from the Indian Foreign Service. He silently savours the unofficial help and deference that the Indian diplomatic establishment in New York and Washington had been constrained to extend to him.

And why not? As the evening at the Jacob Javits Center demonstrated, "ambassador Agnihotri" manages the political prejudices of his friends and mentors in New Delhi. A brief documentary showcased Mr. Vajpayee's global leadership, someone who talked as an equal with world leaders like George Bush, Tony Blair and Putin.

The "ambassador" quarterbacked the Indian community into creating a feel-good, vibrant "bharat mata ki jai" mood. And the community responded.

For weeks the various the religious centres in lower-middle class neighbourhoods — like the Hindu Center in Flushing and Satnarain Temple in Jackson Heights — were used to drum up support and attendance for the evening's function. And they all came — not just the elegant and the successful NRIs, but those still striving for affluence. Hand-tailored suits competed with downmarket t-shirts. They filled the vast hall. They wanted to wallow in their Indian identity. The Agnihotri-controlled show was designed precisely to meet this need. They cheered the loudest when an under-choreographed and over-musicaled "swagatam" dance importunately invoked "maa tu hi to bandhan hai" (Mother India you are the sole and abiding link). They presented to Mr. Vajpayee a "charter of solidarity and commitment," including a promise to inculcate in the new generation an appreciation of Indian values and heritage.

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