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Terror was the talking point

By Nikhil Lakshman in Colombo
Last updated on: August 02, 2008 20:30 IST
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The last time one woke this early for an assignment was to clear security at the White House on July 18, 2005. If you are not outside the Pearly Gates of the Western world by half past six, we were told, we could forget about being witnesses to history. There was no such incentive on Saturday morning so most of the press corps accompanying Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the 15thy SAARC summit in Colombo chose to extend their residency in Noddy Land. The motley bunch who marched forth at 6.30 on a muggy morning was prepared to endure the comprehensive frisking and grilling by Sri Lankan security.

As it turned out, the checks were almost cursory. Sure, our identification was scanned to ensure that the information and photograph matched, sure cameras and laptops were x-rayed, but there was, I thought, a rather chalta hain air to the whole business. Cell phones were not scrutinised and the security personnel accepted our word for what the gizmos were. Maybe they had done all the background checks earlier, but having witnessed the non-penetrative security cover they had thrown over the seafront the previous evening and hearing colleagues' stories about the probing searches at checkpoints, I felt kind of let down.

As I was when I spied the grand-sounding Bandaranaike Memorial International Convention Hall. Built in the style fancied by the socialists of the 1970s, it is a near clone of such structures in places like Hanoi. The innards are more Shanmukhananda Hall circa 1960s than Vigyan Bhavan. The entrance has a wall to wall painting of Sirimao Bandaranaike, the world's first lady prime minister, with her brood, including Chandrika Kumaratunga in dual avatars, as teenager and president.

For the leaders attending the summit, it must have been a sobering experience to light the stamp and release the traditional SAARC stamp under the watchful gaze of Messrs Mao and Zhou. Now, there is one leader who would have appreciated the busts of Chinese Communism's initial presiding deities, but the Maoist Prachanda could not be elected Nepal's premier in time and had to forego what was apparently a trip he much desired. A summit whose primary priority is to fight terrorism launched in Mao's shadow. What was Mahinda Rajapakse thinking?

The Sri Lankan president seemed pleased as fruit jelly during the inauguration. The gallery overlooking the main hall was filled with Colombo schoolchildren smartly dressed in their uniforms and local dignitaries who applauded enthusiastically every time their Big Chief spoke. For all his last gunfight at OK Corral image, Rajapakse is not a fire and brimstone speaker unlike his attractive predecessor or a present day Cassius like the wily J R Jayawardene who Indians remember for luring Rajiv Gandhi into the IPKF fiasco. His style is more patriarchal, his speech and manner reassuring his Sinhala flock that they have in him their saviour against the marauding LTTE.

Summit inaugurals are notable not only for the direction they set for the discussions to follow, but for all the tone employed at the outset. Based on a random poll of Indian listeners at the venue, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, making his official debut at a SAARC summit, stole the show. He won Indian hearts early into his speech when he mourned the loss of Indian and Afghan lives in the July 7 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul.

Just 26 days have passed since that horrific event, and already it has been overwhelmed by fresh murderous assaults on the way we Indians live. Only Karzai and Dr Singh referred to the Bangalore and Ahmedabad bombings though all the leaders save two -- Maldives President Abdul Qayoom and caretaker Nepalese Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala -- made specific references to terrorism in their speeches. For the octogenarian Koirala -- who was missing for a large segment of the inaugural speeches, presumably receiving medical attention -- it was a sorry hurrah. Choosing to ignore his prepared speech, Koirala spoke extempore, rambling at random, and providing reason why politicians must sometimes retire.

The next SAARC summit could have an intriguing new addition if Prachanda is elected prime minister. It is difficult to say if the Maoist will play by the rules or be combative and complicate SAARC's current attempt to be a truly transformational grouping like ASEAN or the European Union. He will not be the only new face at the next event. The Maldives will have its first multi-party election in two months (what if the islands elect an Islamist party?); Bangladesh Chief Adviser Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed -- who made a fine speech -- says the long-delayed elections are scheduled for December. And, of course, the world's largest democracy will also visit the hustings, some say as early as November.

Also making his debut at a SAARC summit was Yousuf Raza Gilani, who Pakistan Peoples Party patron Asif Zardari has chosen to be that country's prime minister. Even though India-Pakistan relations are at its lowest ebb in four years, the body language between the two leaders before the inaugural didn't seem hostile. Perhaps it is their non confrontational personalities, but the images beamed from the lamp lighting and stamp release ceremonies showed Gilani in pleasant chat mode with both Dr Singh and Karzai.

It must have been a difficult time thereafter for the Pakistan leader, whom Sri Lanka's Rupvahini television channel chose to focus on every time a leader mentioned terrorism (who would have thought that even Bhutan would be affected by it? Its St Stephens-educated Prime Minister Jigme Thinley referred to terrorism's impact on his Himalayan kingdom in his speech).

Gilani was the last leader to speak, over seven hours after the Indian media party had set out from their hotel. We were all anxious to hear if he would defend his country against charges of being a major sponsor of terrorism. The Pakistan prime minister dwelt on why South Asia must become the world's granary, why it is important to preserve the environment, and improve people to people contact. The Afghan president -- who has often blamed his eastern neighbour for his nation's continuing troubles -- shook his pencil in some irritation at Gilani's reluctance to come to the point. Then, the reference came -- in a flash of four sentences, of how Pakistan was the world's biggest victim of terrorism and how it has cost 'Shaheed Shehzadi' Benazir Bhutto her life.

That was all.

Gilani, who came under sustained fire during last week's visit to the US for the ISI's links to terrorism, especially in Afghanistan, quickly moved on. One doesn't recall what he said thereafter. We had lost interest.

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Nikhil Lakshman in Colombo